Ray McGrath’s new column as he adjusts to a life in isolation
Day 37. The other evening I came home from my walk – the first since this started – along the river’s edge to find a bottle of Jameson on my doorstep. No note, no word to indicate my benefactor… no need… for I knew at once. Knew because of a conversation earlier in the week about the best way of listening to Lucinda Williams’ latest. We’ll come to that story in a minute or two.
But coming back to the Jameson and my back door… over the years here at an edgeland of my natural world, beside the wood, above the marsh, I had often come home to find a gift – a pair of codling in a plastic bag hanging on the door-knob, a sack of British Queens left, I knew, by my neighbour J who had the wisdom of a long and quietly-lived life in his every word, a loaf of bread from S, and from F, in its birthpot, a two-foot high Douglas Fir, since grown into a stately 60 feet where the garden merges into the Glazing Wood. Once when I came home on a summer’s evening, after a pleasant hour in a warm, westering sun on the grassy bank of The Point of the Marsh watching the incoming tide slowly fill every creek and runnel, there was a book waiting for me, an exquisite piece of writing and photography by Mark Roper and Paddy Dwan appropriately and simply named The River Book. It continues long after its giving to be a source of pleasure and inspiration. Thank you, V. And thank you again, Paddy and Mark.
Each gift had a story in its giving and in its receiving and the Jameson was no different, its significance more pronounced perhaps at this longed-for turning point of a pestilent visitation. A gift can be like a warm, temporarily relieving Chinook sweeping down from the Rockies during a long and hard Albertan winter releasing the High Plains from icy grip. There have always been acts of generosity and caring in normal times, gifts given quietly and without fuss; lunches and other necessities brought to people ill and immobile, bills paid anonymously, credit extended indefinitely when the fishing was poor. But now… ‘unprecedented’ generosity.
And still coming back to the Jameson. Earlier in the week I had been listening to Radio One’s Arena (evenings from 7 to 8pm, Monday to Friday – I could always, later, catch the good-vibed Nationwide on RTE+1.) Sean Rocks had a guest on reviewing Lucinda William’s recent release Good Souls, Better Angels. He played the last track, Good Souls, on this Southern Gothic bluesy album. I had never listened to anything by Williams, never knew of her. What an Eureka moment, what an unforgettable, cracking voice pulsating with the whole gamut of emotions (wasn’t it Leonard Cohen who said, “there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”). And there was something of the rawness of Cohen in her voice. Anyway, some days later I was telling J about her and her voice and I said, “Listen to her, listen to Good Souls, all 7 minutes and 35 seconds of it… and it goes down really well with a glass of whiskey.” And so, the Jameson on my doorstep.
And thinking of this time and the gifts left on doorsteps here’s something by way of a gift from a creative spirit, something that was written for now. And, so, a warm and appreciative thanks to Dublin poet and barrister, John O’Donnell.
And when this ends we will emerge, shyly
and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace
loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those
It gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture this longed-for
laying on of hands, high cries we nuzzle, leaning in
to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,
although a time will come when we’ll forget
the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh
of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;
a time when we may even miss the old-world
arm’s length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,
the drifting idle days and nights when we flung open
all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices
reaching out, holding each other till this passes.
* Thanks to John O’Donnell for this line from his poem.
‘When’ first appeared in print in the Irish Times on Saturday, April 11, 2020. John O’Donnell’s collection of short stories, Almost the Same Blue, will be published by Doire Press this month. Dedalus Press published Sunlight: New and Selected Poems in 2018.
From Cheekpoint, Waterford, Ray McGrath contributes regular columns to the Waterford News & Star, including his most recent series Gaultier Heritage Rambles.