MORPHINE ‘S A BUGGER….
Morphine was a bugger! ….
My uncle ‘s tipple of choice had been a good full-bodied red wine or a G and T …maybe a wee “toddy” on a cold evening. He loved that. He introduced me to those same pleasures when I was a teenager back in the 1960s .This morphine , though,was a poor substitute and it really frightened him , specially when he was alone, dealing with the associate,lonely fevered dreams escaping from his mind into his darkened bedroom.The doctor tried him on something different for a while.
He already knew he was dying, of course.Back in February that same year the cancer had been diagnosed.His body was letting him down and he still didn’t want to believe that stark, simple truth even though he was now getting replacement blood every week or so. He went , Dracula -like, for a top-up but the spaces between hospital visits were becoming more and more tightly – drawn. I suppose he felt like a vampire or an addict that could never be consoled.He still hoped , however, somehow, that there was an escape clause. He was the kind of man who had enjoyed life to the full, laughed at it a lot and felt some bewilderment that this was the way he was destined to leave this world that he loved so much…This morphine was a frightening thing though.
I called in every day to make sure he had anything he needed from the local shop, or I’d cut the grass on his lawn every week when I got back from work. He had always been very particular about keeping things tidy and neat but physical activity was becoming a very burdensome chore.He was gradually weakening by increments.He and I had a connection going right back into my childhood.He’d been twenty when I was born ; now he was seventy four and although he never married, in many ways he treated me like a son and later , a younger brother. He’d bought comics for me, as a child , every week and pointed me, unintentionally to the appreciation of those arcane skills of communication, writing , reading, painting and drawing….loves that never ceased throughout my life.Every week “the Dandy” and “the Topper” lay waiting when I visited.
He had been a fine baker since his teenage years and had eventually owned his own successful business in town.He baked the lot, scones , loaves, bracks, farls , tarts, dough -nuts, pastries ,ginger bricks,”Paris” buns ….getting up in the early hours of the morning to get the ovens ready for the day’s work ahead. I suppose , as a baker, it was one of those back- to -front lives, spent mostly in the twilight hours. Fresh, warm bread had to be made ready for early morning delivery and sale. I especially loved his apple tarts.Later , he would tell me all the little details about his working history….incidents like the time the ovens were not switched off and became red hot during the long closing hours and nearly burning the place to the ground. He had been a popular figure with a hearty , wry humour and had been something of a lady’s man and a born flirt, but he somehow never settled for a married life.Part of that may have been due to the fact that he shared his home with his sister, my one aunt who had never married either. she looked after the “business” side of things and did the books.In the end ,nothing pleased him more than sitting in his garden on a summer’s day, and from his elevated position, watching the sun traverse the silhouette of the town’s spired skyline until its burial at dusk . The perfect spot to see the sun rise on the left and go down on the right .A master of all he surveyed.
Story-telling had always been a tradition in Ireland, specially before the advent of television in the 1950s and 1960s virtually wiped it out. Both my father , his brother, my uncle, and my aunt , their sister, were all natural storytellers . My aunt ,during the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote stories that were published throughout the world , mostly in syndicated weekly magazines such as the famous “Woman’s Own”.This weekly magazine had been popular since the 1930s. These were sold throughout the Commonwealth and found their way to Canada, Australia and Africa and New Zealand. A lot of the stories she wrote would have been based on family- life or yarns my grandmother would have regaled us all with. My father, although armed only with a modest education, could recite whole tracts of Shakespearean speeches off the cuff ;” the Merchant of Venice” was a favourite :
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? “…..
My uncle’s particular party piece was lighter fare in the form of the dramatic comic recital of the multi-stanza’d Robert W. Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” which he extolled with much- exaggerated, mock- comedic theatrics. It was a complete dramatic comedy assault..:.
“There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he’d do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that’s known as Lou.”
I was used to all the storytelling but it was in those final few months of life that my uncle told a story I’d never before been privy to. By this time the sharing of a bottle of wine was an impossibility .He could no longer take the lovely liquid with all the medications that were now his daily bread .His system, and the coalition of pills he had now to swallow, would not allow it.. Any wine poured now, had to be imbibed by me alone, for us both, as he filled my glass copiusly and watched me drink with a mixture of pleasure and an envy for lost tastes.
His great passion since his teenage years had been golf.He talked about that little white ball as if he was a Zen master and that little sphere held all the mystery of the universe. He spoke of dawn mornings and misty greens where he followed that little white ball across the sward, breathing that early morning cleanliness and soaking up the birdsong.When he began , back in the 1940s and early 1950s, golf was generally for the rich folks only, but somehow he had been there with a few limited clubs, learning the game when the local golf club was a more prosaic affair with few humble facilities other than a little wooden shed to change shoes in. Snobbery had no place there.
He told me, how prior to finding golf in the 1940s , the usual sport for himself and his teenage pals had been hunting in the countryside with their dogs. On one particular occasion he had been out alone, with several dogs, held together on ropes or cords as was the custom , when something spooked the animals and sent them running across the fields.He thought nothing of this because it was normal for a hare , a rabbit or a fox to set the dogs to flight. It was early in the day but there was a mist still hanging in the air. As the dogs ran out of sight he became aware of a figure standing in the centre of the country road. The unusual thing he initially noted was that the person was extremely tall. He described him as being about six foot six inches or possibly taller , dressed in black or very dark clothing. He recounted the clothes as looking really old -fashioned and the man was wearing a wide brimmed hat that was no longer current. This was at a time when the majority of men wore either flat “duncher” caps or trilby or homburg headwear.
I laughed at this and said , “I hope you’re not going to tell me, this was a ghost, you saw?”
He knew how sceptical I was and how I would always want a logical explanation.
He said that wasn’t all of it, because he walked towards the fellow on the road to wish him the time of day but there was no answer. The really odd thing was that as he got closer the guy didn’t appear to have a face. At this, he had my full attention.” No face , eh?” That was about the size of it . He couldn’t see anything that resembled a face or features. I asked if it was a hooded or bandaged appearance like the “Invisible Man” in the movies.There was only a blank airy space , he said, much like the morning mist. He walked past the figure with a growing mixture of fear and unbelief and turned back to look, but, as in best ghost story tradition , the vision was gone.
I laughed…. He laughed…. We both chuckled together at the absolute absurdity of this, but he was still very serious, chewing over the memories of fifty years ago, in his mind.
His mother , my grandmother had left Dublin as a fifteen- year old girl and she and her sister had made their way to Armagh wher she eventually met and married my grandfather, as a young woman ,while working in a local spinning mill or the local convent laundry. Flax yarn was spun and and made into linen back then. Storytelling became known locally as “spinning yarns”…..
She was from a time , born at the end of the 19th century , before aeroplanes had been invented, never mind world wide webs , mobile phones , television and all the rest. She had died at Easter in 1970 just a few months after the first man had walked, impossibly, on the surface of the moon. A science -fiction story come true.She relished and told us stories about banshees(” bean si” in gaelic or” woman of the fairy mounds”) and faerie folk though, and I think, in retrospect, she half- believed them in that old superstitious way that still adheres to many in Ireland.Of course , as children we believed her tales implicitly. The fear of particular numbers, black cats and so on still holds sway; much as people believe in horoscopes.. My father would laugh and say that all the faeries ran for the hills when electricity arrived in the Irish villages. Indeed , he remembered when the new electric lighting arrived in my mother’s village of Blackwatertown and the other country places .He was a “townie” and he always said it spelt an end to the ceilighing and storytelling traditions.
When my then, teenage uncle, finally gathered his dogs together and eventually arrived back home, he relayed the experience to his mother, my granny with great fear and excitement. She told him to never go back near that place again. He took her at her word and there began his life -long interest in golf . Golf can take up an inordinate amount of time by all accounts. The dogs and hunting were forgotten and he never spoke of his encounter again until the day he relayed it to me.
It felt like he was giving me a mystery that had played on his mind. One which he wouldn’t be able to take with him or carry any longer. I don’t believe he ever told anyone about it again because he was to get his release from cancer when his heart finally outran his skeletal body and raced out of this world on one last ramble, when he died later that year on Boxing Day. I had left him down to the hospital in October that year when he could no longer sustain his blood losses at home. He never went home again.
Several years of reflection have passed before I have felt like writing this recollection, I recently searched the internet with reference to this strange apparition that my uncle had experienced. The odd thing is that there are stories of similar sightings by people all over the world, in lots of diverse cultures. Sometimes called the “Shadow People”,my uncle’s faceless man in black is also known as “the Slender Man” or in Japan “the Yokai”. The tales go back centuries.
Did my uncle see something real, different , alien or other-worldly that changed the direction of his life, or was it something like a neurological, electrical “stroke” or a febrile imagination in process. I really have no idea.I do not believe in life after death or that idea of ghosts as the spirit of dead people, long gone, but my uncle’s frightening experience still brings an old frisson of primeval fear , wonder and excitement and in the end, he left me with one hell of a “yarn ” of his own,to spin on into the future.