A Country of My Own

 

I was at the ball park last night with my husband to pass a warm summer’s evening. Before the game began, everyone stood to sing our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. I have not been able to sing our national anthem since my early twenties, for if I did, a knot would form in my throat and tears would start to fall. Tears of gratitude to have a country of my own. Tears of sorrow in remembering that night when I was amongst my dearest friends yet never more alone. The night I realized how much I needed a country of my own, how much I desired a country where I belonged.  That was almost 50 years ago now……

I had wanted to get to sleep before the mice began gnawing on the floorboards. He lay my coat over the thin blanket, as the electric fire was off.  Turning on my side to face the wall, I nestled into the space on our mattress between him and the wall. I closed my eyes to imagine the scene I called upon nightly to bring on sleep. The simple white gown, the small bouquet, flowers in my hair…. in a lush green garden, back in Ireland, in County Galway, anywhere in Galway. I slowly walked towards him, and the musicians would begin to play. But this was the important bit - Which song would be played as I walked towards him? I thought of one tune followed by another, trying each one to see if it fit, finally drifting off to sleep.

It was the next morning when I realized I had no clothes suitable for my new job – a typist at the London Electricity Board.  My faded blue jeans lay on the floor by the mattress, and over the chair hung the wrap-around denim skirt and white peasant blouse I had been wearing all summer. So as not to wake him up, I quietly took out the suitcase that I had stashed in the wardrobe when he and I had moved into the flat with Tony and Peter. I found the short black skirt I had worn as a waitress at the GBC in Galway and a pink knit top. I slipped on the skirt, the top and the dusty brown leather pumps from the very bottom of the wardrobe before going down the stairs and out the door onto Priory Road, heading for the Kilburn High Road.

I got this job for the money, but that was not the only reason. The life I was leading was well enough for Padraig, Tony, and Peter. Each week they went down to the labour exchange and signed on for the dole. That money coupled with their pub gigs on the weekend covered their portion of the rent, a bit of a meal each day, fags, and pints.  If they were short, they busked on the Portobello Road on Saturday mornings.  The other musicians who visited the flat, friends from Galway, supplied a regular flow of paki-black for the long summer evenings. But I was an American in London on a tourist visa, which did not allow me to work.  But something in me wanted to work. Sitting around the flat all day was starting to, as Tony would say, “get on my tits”.

Last week Padraig suggested I use his sister’s identification number so i could get a job, since his sister was working in Boston for the summer.  I could pretend to be Irish; he assured me that I   had the accent down well enough. The next afternoon, at the temp agency on Kilburn High Road, i told the woman I was Evelyn Stevens, from Tuam in County Galway, and that I could type – all lies. I had taken a typing course in high school, but barely passed. However, i looked the temp lady right in the eye and said it like I believed it.  The lady had hardly asked any questions at all, and told me to report the following Monday morning to the London Electricity Board, at the end of the Kilburn High Road, to be a typist in the typing pool. It had been so easy.

But as I approached the London Electricity Board, I could see that the women who worked there were wearing those new longer skirts with high platform shoes. My skirt was too short and my breasts were swinging around under the pink knit, as I wore no bra.  The low brown leather pumps were pitiful. It seemed everyone was looking at me. An older woman escorted me up a staircase to a desk with a typewriter. I sat down as quickly as I could, feeling not so noticeable sitting. I was also saying as little as possible, in fear of a mistake in my pretend Irish accent. I sat there looking around for a few minutes when a woman about my age arrived and introduced herself as Sally. Sally had an English accent, and she was the first English person I had ever met.

“Has anyone explained how things work ‘round here?”

“No, not yet.” I said.

“Just like this lot! Well, it isn’t so complicated, Evelyn. Here, I’ll show you.”

Sally showed me her in-basket and out-basket, and next to it, mine. She explained that the supervisor usually left them alone, but she would come around to check the out-baskets.

“To make sure we’re not slacking off, Evelyn” said Sally, with a wink.

There were several hand-written letters about credits to electricity bills that were in my in-basket. I got to work, pecking around and making reasonable progress. When finishing a letter, I had to put the writer’s initials in caps, and my own in lower case letters. But i kept putting so for Susan O’Dea instead of es for Evelyn Stevens. Each time, I corrected this with white out, but the supervisor noticed when she was stopped by to look over my work. I saw her from the corner of my eye standing near my out-basket holding the corrected letters in her hand and squinting over at me. I kept my eyes glued to my typewriter.

Sally was a talker. She had just married, so over the weekend she and her husband were fixing up their new flat – cleaning, painting, curtains – all that stuff. Sally went on about this most of the morning, as if I were part of this world.  i thought of the pints I had consumed Friday night in the pub during Padraig’s  gig,  followed by joints smoked back at the flat  with the lads while Sally and her husband were painting their new sitting room.  I doubted Sally had ever had a night like Friday nights at Priory Road!.  But I also wondered  if I would ever have what Sally had; a flat with just Padraig and me in it, and the two of us going out to work every day and a meal every night followed by a quiet evening. Would I ever live in a world like Sally’s?  Would I ever want to? It was strange, because lately sometimes i thought I did; other times, i did not at all. There would be no joints passed around a circle of friends, no listening to Tony till 2 or 3 in the morning on his guitar singing his songs of home. Home. It had felt right for me to call Galway home, having spent each summer and every school break in Galway with Padraig  for the past three years.

At 1230, Sally prepared to leave for lunch, asking if i wanted to come along. I did not have any money, so i said no, lying about meeting a friend for lunch. Sally explained she would also go to the butcher for some meat for tea that evening, so maybe she would see me on the High Street. I walked the busy High Street passing the hour, hoping not to bump into Sally, as my lie about lunch would be obvious, and i did not want to face lying to Sally because Sally was being so nice to me. I had felt terribly awkward that morning- my clothes were not right, my hesitations to speak, my errors on the letters. But Sally’s friendly chatter had managed to make me comfortable.

Sally was the only English girl I had ever met. My only real friends in London were Padraig, Tony, and Peter in London, and they were Irish. There were also a gang of Australian lads in the basement of the house on Priory Road who were working construction for the summer, but Padraig did not like it when I talked with other men, so it was best that I did not  respond to their  attempts to engage me in a conversation. Sally was also the only person I knew who had a hot meal every evening. At the flat we drank pots and pots of tea, and maybe a piece of toast. One morning I went into the kitchen to make tea, stamping my foot at the doorway in order to chase any mice away. I put the water on to boil, and to the fridge for milk, but the only thing in the fridge was some paki black. I badly wanted milk for my morning cup of tea. I figured Sally probably always had milk for the tea.

I wore the black skirt every day that week, alternating between the pink top and a white peasant blouse that badly needed a wash. i always wore the brown leather pumps, as the only other shoes i had were beat-up summer sandals.

It was on Thursday of that week that the supervisor entered the typing-pool room with another woman.

“I told the girls downstairs that we had an Irish girl from the temp agency, and Imelda wanted to come up and welcome you.”

“Hallo, how are ye?” she said. I knew from her accent that she was not only from Ireland, but from the west.  Oh shit, I thought.

She introduced herself as Imelda from Cloonboo, a village i was vaguely familiar with as it was about twenty miles from Galway, where I had been living with Padraig.

“I’m from Tuam” I  said, trying to say the name of the town where Padraig’s family was from just right. There was the way people from Galway said Tuam, but another way that people from Tuam said Tuam. i was confident that i got it right, as Imelda immediately started asking me did i know this one or that one, as she said that she knew some people herself who were from Tuam.

“No, but that name sounds familiar.” I quickly realized that I was saying that too many times, but I pressed on  as best i could,  ignoring Imelda’s annoying squeals of amazement when I did not know  the  people on her list of  the very important people in Tuam.

“You’re saying now that you don’t know the Mulligans? Ah, sure, you MUST know of the Mulligans. Jeanie Mack, your not knowing the Mulligans and you from Tuam and all. Well, then, so, do you know the Lalley’s? There are three brothers – Mike, Peter, and Phillip. You know them, now, for sure.”

“Now, you know, I might know them.”

“You might? You might, she says.” And with that, she looked over at the supervisor.

Each question put to me was accompanied by knowing glances towards the supervisor that clearly affirmed their conviction that i was lying. Then the supervisor asked me where in the world i had bought my shoes – the brown leather pumps..

“They’re American shoes, aren’t they, Evelyn?”

I knew they knew, but I plodded on.
“My sister brought them back to me when she was working in the states last summer.”

“So you’re saying she brought ye shoes, did she? Shoes? From America? That’s odd.”

“Yes, shoes. These shoes. That’s what I ‘m sayin’.”

“And which sister would that be, now, in the Steven’s of  Tuam?”

“Carmel. Carmel Stevens.” i gave the name of  Padraig’s younger sister – a girl of fifteen who would never have even been  in the states.  It was just a matter of days before Imelda would sort  this out with her other Irish friends around Kilburn and be back with more of her bloody questions.

Finally, they left.  i picked up the next letter in my box, pretending to read it, but putting it down as my hand was shaking. i prayed for the moment to pass. Sally said nothing, and began to type. Thursday could not end soon enough. This pretending to be Irish was getting complicated.

On my walk home, I ran through what had  happened. I knew i could do the accent well enough, but it was the shoes giving me away.  i had no money for those platform shoes everyone was wearing.  And bloody long skirts! I needed the money for my portion of the rent and  then some food.  But these troubles were forgotten when i turned onto Priory Road, for on the roof smoking a joint and basking in the light of the long summer evening were the three lads. They laughed looking down at me, stoned out of their minds.
“Hallo, Susan.”
“What are ye doin’ up there?”
“Ah, Jack All, Susan.  Jack All.”

At least I was Susan again. When i entered the flat, i smelled something cooking. The three  mattresses along the walls of the lounge were empty, except for Angela’s mattress in the far corner,  where she sat smoking a cigarette.

“Hallo, Susan.”
“Angela. What do I smell?”
“That would be a chicken, Susan. Roisinne found a five pound note on the sidewalk and didn’t she go to the butcher and buy a chicken and spuds and veg – can you believe it? She’s been cooking for hours. We are dying of the hunger just smelling it.”

I slipped the skirt off and was pulling up my jeans when Padraig came into the lounge.
“Just me.  How was the day, so?”

I told him about the girl from Cloonboo and the shoes as I zipped up  my jeans.
“Ah, fuck’em, Susan. Just fuck’em.”

We both laid down on our mattress and shared a cigarette.
“I’ m nearly out of fags.” Padraig said, thumbing through his copy of Melody Maker.
“You could go get some after the dinner, ok?”
“OK, so.” Padraig began to read an article. Smelling the chicken, my thoughts turned to Roisinne, who seemed a good bit older than me, and  was a very dominant woman.
“Angela?”
“What is it, Susan?”
“Tell me again, how did Roisinne come here? I cannot remember how she came to be here.”
Angela recalled her own arrival  from Galway about a month ago with her friend who needed abortion. They stayed at the flat, but the friend went back to Ireland after the procedure. Angela decided to stay a while longer. Then, she ran into Roisinne, who she knew from County Mayo, one Saturday on the street in Ladbroke Grove, and invited her to come by the flat that evening. And Roisinne did.
“And, sure, she never left.” Padraig concluded, with a final pull on his fag.. “Ugly old women appearing out of nowhere. Telling us all what to do. Fuckin’ Yeats would like that well enough.” added Padraig,  putting down the Melody Maker and walking over to the record player. He began to leaf through the albums.

This story was typical for the flat on Priory Road.  Tony and Peter were the first in the flat.  Then, Padraig and I joined them, splitting the rent between the four of us.  However, the number of visitors rose and fell under the steady flow of Irish friends coming through. Some had just arrived from Galway to London on their way to the continent while others were on their way back to Galway after having  worked somewhere on the continent for a couple of months.. Some stayed a night, others a week at most, but Roisinne never left. Angela was Tony’s sister, so her staying on was different.  But Roisinne had no such connection. I really had no family connection either, just that I was with Padriag, and I paid rent.

Tony came into the lounge from the roof, swearing under his breath about Roisinne. Peter was quick to reply. “She was good enough to get us a chicken, Tony. She could have had herself several chicken dinners out on the High Road for a fiver and none of us would be the wiser.”

“Ah, you are right, Peter. But there are other things she could do with a fiver. Like buying herself a ticket back home. She’s a bossy old biddy.”

Tony did not like this woman who had taken to bossing the three lads about the flat. But if Tony disliked her so much, why wouldn’t he just tell her to leave? It seemed the lads could not do that for some reason that was not clear to me. I could only guess it was some Irish thing I did not understand. The others who had come through the flat, for a night or two and then looking like they might linger, were let known in one way or another,  that it was time for them to leave.  But Roisinne had ignored these signals and now seemed to be sending a signal of her own with this chicken dinner.

Later that evening, we were full from dinner and were sitting around the flat. There was no paki black about, so a very quiet night was in order. I was sitting against the wall on my mattress, waiting on Padraig to return from the shop with fags. Roisinne, across the room  from me on her mattress, was poking around in her cloth bag until she pulled out a tin whistle. I had no idea she had a tin whistle, and it  was very  odd to me that Roisinne would have held out on them like that, never playing a tune for them, all those nights when Tony was singing his songs and playing his guitar.

But then Roisinne began to play, and she played A Soldier’s Song, a song -the national anthem of Ireland – which I had only heard back in the states among Irish Americans. But here was Roisinne playing it on her tin whistle -   after having fed them a chicken dinner that she paid for with a fiver found on the street.  i sensed that i was supposed to be paying attention, that something was going down here as the sound of Roisinne’s tin whistle playng A Soldier’s Song  filled the room.

So I looked around the room to see the reaction of the others, all in some relaxed pose on their matresses. They were all watching Roisinne,  silent, intently  listening. The room was so still. The melody seeming to encircle them. The notes kept coming from her pipe, so clear and so steady. It was as if they were all under some sort of a spell. They were all of it. It seemed to me that each one of them was resting at the same time on the same exact thought of home. The song, their national anthem, was touching  the same spot in each one of them, people who were so far away from the place they loved so dearly.

It was in the watching of this that i realized that I was not, like them, of that place, a place that I loved so dearly.  A place I had thought was home. This was a stark realization. This pretending to be Irish was getting complicated. This was the beginning of the end of that time in my life, and simultaneously the first step in my long journey home to my own country, my own national anthem.

 

 

 

 

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