The day dawned wide and blue, and the sun came on powerful bold in the clean sky. For Gerry Morgan, still happily astonished after twenty years of such mornings, the strength of light and freshness gave no inkling of the all too sweet sadness that would shade his afternoon. And why should it? He was oblivious to what was coming his way, unwittingly blissful as he breakfasted on the back terrace in full sun, the radiance welcomed now that summer had finally burnt itself out. Autumn was his favourite season here in southern France. Spring, yes, spring was magnificent, a giddy joy, the colours practically neon, the growth spurts alarming, but it was rushed, breathless, two or three weeks of perfect climate before dumb heat flooded the landscape. Autumn knew to take its time, as befitted the fullness of its golden, orangey palate, the base notes of fermented, fallen fruits, those rapid, crackling storms and focused downpours. And days like this: leisurely, tender, mature, intensely bronze days, the sky a 9/11 blue, the local population cut back to pre-tourist levels.
Growing up in County Down he’d caught glimpses of this kind of weather. September afternoons of algebra whilst beyond the windows the schoolyard filled with the sunshine they hadn’t seen all summer. Rare weekends of strange conditions, a temperature both cool and warm; progging high-walled orchards for mawkish pears and the hard astringency of crabapple. Picking blackberries amid nettles and thorns. These were the thoughts that busied away at the back of his mind as the morning progressed; not so much thoughts, they were emotions, rising and falling, undifferentiated, like waves that did not break, did not crest, just rolled and roiled beneath the crust of his ego. The nostalgic tone was entirely suitable for the season, and his age.
The email came just after lunch. Despite having risen early, lunch was late, at two. The sun was now on the balcony at the front of the house, cutting the smallish table there neatly down the middle. He sat on the sunny side and had a glass of white wine with the anchovy and onion tart from the village bakery. As he ate, chewing slowly, frowning from behind sunglasses at the pine trees in the distance, he glanced occasionally at the tablet propped against the salt and pepper mills. With a greasy finger he swiped his way through the headlines for the day feeling placidly above it all. The idiocy of humans, the cruelty of bad policies — here with his sunshine and his white wine he was out of the fray, and the eye he cast over images of warfare and suffering, blue and curt, was Chardonnay cold. He checked his email and found it empty. Facebook had been invaded by images of small people in costume, the children of family/friends, and at first he wondered what this new craze for dressing up was, what the practice indicated in the psyche of the sheepfold. Then he recalled the date; it was Hallowe’en. Back home the kids were readying themselves for the unattested paganism of the evening. Some wag had dressed a toddler as Donald Trump, with orange makeup, a pillow up the shirt for a belly, a strawlike wig. It worked well, both amusing and horrifying. Otherwise, the usual vampires and zombies, and superheroes Gerry could not identify. He dutifully liked each image.
Returning to his email he was about to compose a message to a former colleague when the wine and agreeable warmth edged over him and he became drowsy. That was when the email arrived. He did not recognise the sender although, having arrived in his inbox, it was clearly from someone in his contacts. The title said little, Thought you might find this interesting, and when he opened the mail there was not much text.
I’ve been helping my father organise his photos and I came across the attached images. He suggested I send them to you, so I scanned them and here they are. Enjoy. Martin.
Who was this Martin? The address gave no indication. And that command, enjoy, it put his back up.
The first image loaded and at once he knew who Martin was, who his father had been. There were three men and a woman, nineteen-sixties sideburns and collars, the lady’s dress a geometric riot of colours, muted by the yellowish tinge of the photograph, washed-out by age. But the people! There was Martin’s father, Hughie McCourt, Big Hugh, his jacket short on the arms, his big round head all beard and teeth, shirt open on wild curly chest hair. The woman was unmistakeably Aunt May, looking younger than he could ever have imagined, her fringe trimmed high, her lovely eyes lowered over a timid smile. The second man he did not know, but the third, straight-backed, staring deliberately at the camera, the only one doing so, caused a quick intake of breath.
Eye to eye again after all these years. Dad! His outfit was more sober than the others: suit, fat tie, his hair neat. A solid, farmer’s frame, hands on hips, the strength of his limbs apparent despite his easy stance. Gerry heard his voice, his unvarying, singsong greeting: Hello there. And he imagined those arms lifting him, swinging him, enveloping him. The smell of the cows on his clothes, his scratchy moustache.
They were by the river, a picnic out at the Ballast Pit, the Sunday tradition back then; thermos of tea for the women, beer for the men, and a round of white bread sandwiches that would feed the five thousand. His mother must have been present, perhaps behind the camera, which could explain the directness of his father’s eyes. And he himself, did Gerry exist when this picture was taken? Was he out of shot, put down on a tartan blanket, wrapped and sleeping?
The next photo showed only Aunt May and Hugh McCourt, his arm around her in a way that suggested they were lovers. Aunt May? Had she dated Hughie? In his memories of her she was always alone, small hands clasped, her lovely eyes averted. She died in her fifties, single, her poems unpublished, her big house empty. Hugh met his wife not long before Gerry was born for she appeared as his girlfriend in the cherished story of Gerry’s christening, how the baby vomited on the priest’s surplice. As in the first photo, they were out at the river: same clothes, same evening light slanting through the riverbank trees.
The third and final picture was of Gerry’s father on his own, goofing on the old weir that cut across the river just down from Donal’s bridge. The river was low and the weir almost fully exposed. His dad had a stick in his hand, brandished like a sword, his pose declaring that this was his weir and all challengers would be dispatched. He was laughing, showing his dense teeth, shirtsleeves rolled up, tie gone. A few beers later.
Gerry’s father died when he was seven. His mother did not remarry and tended the memory of her husband with jealous care. My man, as she called him. My man was the most handsomest fella for miles around. He used to pick you up and throw you in the air! Such a fine smile my man had.
Sitting on his sun-filled terrace, the high Mediterranean sky beaming gaudy blue, Gerry found himself surrounded by his dead. He looked from one to the next, naming them silently, willing them to speak. But they did not speak; they smiled, they cried, they reflected dramas and victories and loss with ethereal eyes. Only his father spoke. Hello there. That’s all he said, repeating it each time Gerry remembered someone else, as if his father spoke for all of them. Those emotions, the wavelike mass of unaddressed memories from breakfast, now swelled and came upon the shore of his consciousness. Homeward after a long dander, up on his father’s shoulders, the thick, black hair and narrow head between his legs. Dad shoving at an unresponsive cow. The cold, bright October mornings and first frost bleaching the upper field. Picking blackberries as Dad held back the nettles.
Sorrowful, Gerry felt the weight of himself in time, the temporal mass of his existence. He felt a connection of spirit also, buoyant this, a wafting, heartening union with his ghosts. Again, entirely suitable for the season: they said that at Hallowe’en the boundary between the mundane and supernatural world was at its thinnest. Porous like a loose weave linen. I have to be careful, he joked to himself seriously, lest I get carried away by the fairies and lost forever in selective reminiscence — that foreign country where father was always a happy father, a healthy father, and mother was graceful and affectionate.
No, the past, his past, was sealed. A hard border. He dozed off, certain of this.