Issue 110, Spring 1989
When the new shopkeeper arrived in the village he aroused great curiosity along with some scorn. He was deemed refined because his fingernails looked as if they had been varnished a tinted ivory. He had a horse, or as my father was quick to point out, a glorified pony, which he had brought from the Midlands, where he had previously worked. The pony was called Daisy, a name unheard of in our circles, for an animal. The shopkeeper wore a long black coat, a black hat, talked in a low voice, made his own jams and marmalades and could even darn and sew. All that we came to know of, in due course, but at first we only knew him as Barry. In time the shop would have his name, printed in beautiful silver sloping script, above the door. He had bought the long-disused bakery, had all the ovens thrown out and turned it into a palace which not only had gadgets, but gadgets that worked, a lethal slicer for the ham, a new kind of weighing scale that did not require iron weights hefted onto one side, but that simply registered the weight of a bag of meal and told it by a needle that spun round, wobbling dementedly before coming to a stand-still. Even farmers praised its miraculous skills. He also had a meat safe with a grey gauze door, a safe in which creams and cheeses could be kept fresh for an age, free of the scourge of flies or gnats.
Straight away he started to do great business as the people reneged on the shops where they had dealt for years and where many of them owed money. They flocked, to look at him, to hear his well-mannered voice and to admire dainties and things that he had in stock. He had ten different flavored jellies and more than one brand of coffee. The women especially liked him. He leant over the counter, discussed things with them, their headaches, their knitting, patterns for suits or dresses that they might make, and along with that he kept an open tin of biscuits so that they could have them if they felt peckish. The particular favorite was a tiny round biscuit, like a holy communion wafer with a thin skin of rice paper as a lining. These were such favorites that Barry would have to put his hand down beneath the ruffs of ink paper and ferret up a few from the bottom. The rice paper did not taste like paper at all but a disc of some magical metamorphosed sugar. Besides the favorite biscuit, there were others, a sandwich of ginger filled with a soft white filling that was as sturdy as putty, and another in which there was a blend of raspberry and custard, a combination that engendered such ecstasy that one was torn between the pleasure of devouring it or tasting each grain slowly so as to isolate the raspberry from the custard flavor. There were also arrowroot and digestives but these were the last to be eaten. He called the biscuits bikkies and cigarettes ciggies. He was not such a favorite with the men, both because he raved to the women and because he voiced the notion of bringing drama to the town. He said that he would find a drama that would embody the talents of the people and that he would direct and produce it himself. Constantly he was casting people and although none of us knew precisely what he meant, we would agree when he said, “Rosalind, a born Rosalind,” or, “Cordelia, if ever I met one.” He did not, however, intend to do Shakespeare as he feared that, being untrained, the people would not be able to get their tongues around the rhyming verse and would not feel at home in bulky costumes. He would choose something more suitable, something that people could identify with. Every time he went to the city to buy stock, he also bought one or two plays and if there was a slack moment in the shop he would read a speech or even a whole scene, he himself acting the parts, the men’s and the women’s. He was very convincing when he acted the women or the young girls. One play was about a young girl who saw a dead seagull and in seeing it, her tragedy was predestined. She was crossed in love, had an illegitimate child and drove a young man to suicide. Another time he read scenes about two very unhappy people in Scandinavia who scalded each other, daily, with accusation and counter-accusation, and to buoy himself up, the man did a frenzied dance. Barry did the dance, too, jumping on and off the weighing scales or even onto the counter when he got carried away. He used to ask me to stay on after the shop closed simply because I was as besotted as he was by these exotic and tormented characters. It was biscuits, sweets, lemonade, anything. Yet something in me flinched, foresaw trouble. The locals were suspicious, they did not want plays about dead birds and illegitimate children, or unhappy couples tearing at each other, because they had these scenarios aplenty. Barry decided, wisely, to do a play that would be more heartening, a simple play about wholesome people and wholesome themes, such as getting the harvest in safely. I was always privy to each new decision, partly because of my mania for the plays and partly because I had to tell him how his pony was doing. The pony grazed with us and consequently we were given quite a lot of credit. I shall never forget my mother announcing this good news to me, flushed with pride, almost suave as she said, “If ever you have the hungry grass on the way from school, just go into Barry and say you feel like a titbit.” In telling me this so casually, I saw how dearly she would have loved to have been rich, to entertain, to give lunch parties and supper parties, to show off the linen tablecloths and the good cutlery which she had vaselined over the years to keep the steel from rusting. In these imaginary galas she brandished the two silver salvers, the biscuit barrel and the dinner plates with their bouquets of violets in the center and scalloped edging that looked like crochet work. We had been richer but over the years the money got squandered. Barry liked us and was even a favorite with my mother, to whom he did not talk about dramas, but about the ornaments in our house, commenting on her good taste. It was the happiest half year in my life, being able to linger in Barry’s shop and while he was busy read some of these plays and act them silently inside my head. With the customers all gone, I would sit on the counter, swing my legs, gorge biscuits and discuss both the stories and the characters. Barry in his white shop coat and with a sharpened pencil in his hand would make notes of the things we said. He would discuss the scenery, the lights, the intonation of each line, and when an actor should hesitate or then again when an actor should let rip. Barry said it was a question of contrast; of nuance versus verve. I stayed until dark, until the moon came up or the first star. He walked home but he did not try to kiss one or put his hand on the tickly part at the back of the knee, the way other men did, even the teacher’s first cousin who pretended he wasn’t doing it, when he was. Barry was as pure as a young priest and like a priest had pale skin with down on it. His only blemish was his thinning hair and the top of his head was like an egg, with big wisps, which I did not like to look at.
Business for him was not quite as flush as in those first excitable weeks, but, as he would say to my mother, things were “ticking over,” and also he was lucky in that his Aunt Milly in the Midlands was going to leave him her farm and her house. Meanwhile if there were debts she would come to the rescue, so that he would never be, like us, disgraced by having his name printed in a gazette, where all the debtors’ names were printed so that the whole country knew of it. As it neared autumn Barry had decided on a play and had started auditions.
“All for Hecuba and Hecuba for me,” he said to the mystified customers. It was a play about travelling players, so that, as he said, the actors and actresses could have lots of verve and camp it up. No one knew quite what he meant by “camp it up.” He mulled over playing the lead himself but there were objections from people in the town. So each evening, men and women went to the parlor that adjoined the shop, read for him and often emerged disgruntled and threatening to start up a rival company because he did not give them the best part. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Barry had written on the spur of the moment to a famous actor in Dublin for a spot of advice. In the letter he had also said that if the actor was ever passing through the vicinity he might like “to break bread.” Barry was very proud of the wording of this letter. The actor replied on a postcard. It was a postcard in which four big white cats adhered together, in a mesh. Spurred by this signal Barry made a parcel of country stuffs and sent them to the actor by registered post. He sent butter, fowl, homemade cake and eggs wrapped in thick twists of newspaper and packed in a little papiermâché box. Not long after, I met him in the street in a dither. The most extraordinary thing had happened. The actor and his friend were coming to visit, had announced it without being invited, said they had decided to help Barry in his artistic endeavor and would teach him all the rudiments of theater that were needed for his forthcoming production. “A business lunch à trois” was how Barry described it, his voice three octaves higher, his face unable to disguise his fervid excitement. My mother offered to loan linen and cutlery, the Liddy girl was summoned to scrub, and Oona, the sacristan, was cajoled to part with some of the flowers meant for the altar while I was enlisted to go around the hedges and pick anything, leaves, branches, anything.
“His friend is called Ivan,” Barry said and added that though Ivan was not an actor, he was a partner and saw to the practical aspect of things. How he knew this I have no idea, because I doubt that the actor would have mentioned such a prosaic thing. Preparations were begun. My mother made shortbread and cakes, orange and Madeira; she also gave two cockerels, plucked and ready for the oven with a big bowl of stuffing which the Liddy girl could put in the birds at the last minute. She even put in a darning needle and green thread so that the rear ends of the chicken could be sewn up once the stuffing was added. The bath was scoured, the bathroom floor so waxed that the Liddy girl slipped on it and threatened to sue but was pacified with the gift of a small packet of cigarettes. A fire was lit in the parlor for days ahead, so as to air it and give it a sense of being lived in. It was not certain if the actor and Ivan would spend the night, not clear from the rather cheeky bulletin that was sent, but, as Barry pointed out, he had three bedrooms, so that if they did decide to stay there would be no snag. Naturally he would surrender his own bedroom to the actor and give Ivan the next best one and he could be in the box room.
Nobody else was invited but that was to be expected, since after all it was a working occasion and Barry was going to pick their brains about the interpretation of the play, about the sets and about the degree to which the characters should exaggerate their plights. The guests were seen emerging from a big old-fashioned car with coupe bonnet, the actor holding an umbrella and sporting a red carnation in his buttonhole. Ivan wore a raincoat and was a little portly but they ran so quickly to the hall door that only a glimpse of them was seen. Barry had been standing inside the door since after Mass, so that the moment he heard the thud of the knocker, the door was swung open and he welcomed them into the cold but highly polished corridor. We know that they partook of lunch because the Liddy girl told how she roasted the birds to a tee, added the potatoes for roasting at the correct time, and placed the lot on a warmed platter with carving knife and carving fork to one side. She had knocked on the parlor door to ask if he wanted the lunch brought in, but Barry had simply told her to leave it in the hatch and that he would get it himself as they were in the thick of an intense discussion. She grieved at not being able to serve the lunch because it meant both that she could not have a good look at the visitors and that she would not get a handsome tip.
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when the disturbance happened. I had gone over there because of being possessed by a mad hope that they could do a reading of the play, and that I would be needed to play some role, even if it was a menial one. I stood in the doorway of the drapery shop across the street, visible, if Barry should lift the net curtain and look out. Indeed I believed he would and I waited quite happily. The village was quiet and sunk in its after-dinner somnolence, with only myself and a few dogs prowling about. It had begun to spatter with rain. I heard a window being raised and was stunned to see the visitors on the small upstairs balcony, dressed in outlandish women’s clothing. I should have seen disaster then, except that I thought they were women, that other visitors, their wives perhaps, had come unbeknownst to us. When I saw Barry in a maroon dress, larking, I ducked down, guessing the awful truth. He was calling, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” Already three or four people had come to their doorways and soon there was a small crowd looking up at the appalling spectacle of three drunk men, pretending to be women. They were all wearing pancake makeup and were heavily rouged. The actor also wore a string of pearls and kept hitting the other two in jest. Ivan was wearing a pleated skirt and a low-cut white blouse, with falsies underneath. The actor had on some kind of toga and was shouting wild endearments and throwing kisses.
The inflamed owner of the drapery shop asked me how long these antics had been going on.
“I don’t know,” I said, my face scarlet, every bit of me wishing to vanish. Yet I followed the crowd as they moved, inexorably, towards the balcony, all of them speechless as if the spectacle had robbed them of their reason. It was in itself like a flag, this silent throng moving toward a particular destiny.
Barry wore a tam-o’-shanter and looked uncannily like a girl. It gave me the shivers to see this metamorphosis. He even tossed his neck like a girl and you would no longer believe he was bald. The actor warmed to the situation and starting calling people “ducky” and “cinders” while also reciting snatches from Shakespeare. He singled people out. So carried away was he, by the allure of his performance, that the wig he was wearing began to slip, but, determined to be a sport about this, he took it off, doffed it to the crowd and replaced it again. It was a brunette wig. One of the women, a Mrs. Gleeson, fainted, but more attention was being paid to the three performers than to her so she had to stagger to her feet again. Seeing that the actor was stealing the scene, Ivan did something terrible: he opened the low-cut blouse, took out the falsies, tossed them down to the crowd and said to one of the young men, “Where there’s that, there’s plenty more.” The young man in question did not know what to do, did not know whether to pick them up and throw them back, or challenge the strangers to a fight. The actor and Ivan then began arguing and vied with each other as to who was the most fetching. Barry had receded and was in the doorway of the upper room, still drunk but obviously not so drunk as to be indifferent to the calamity that had occurred. The actor, it seemed, had also taken a liking to the young man whom Ivan had thrown the falsies to, and now holding a folded scroll, he leant over the wrought iron, looked down directly at the man, brandished the scroll and said, “It’s bigger than that, darling.” At once the locals got the gist of the situation and called on him to come down so that they could beat him to a pulp. Enthused now by their heckling, he stood on the wobbly parapet and began to scold them, telling them there were some naughty skeletons in their lives and that they couldn’t fool him by all pretending to be happily married men. Then he said something awful: he said that the great Oscar Wilde had termed marriage “the sheets of lawful lust.” A young guard arrived and called up to the actor to please recognize that he was causing a disturbance to the peace as well as scandalizing innocent people.
“Come and get me darling,” the actor said and wriggled his forefinger again and again, like a saucy heroine in a play. Also, on account of being drunk he was swaying on this very rickety parapet.
“Come down now,” the guard said, trying to humor him a bit because he did not want the villagers to have a death on their hands. The actor smiled at this note of conciliation and called the guard “Lola,” and asked if he ever used his big baton anywhere else, and so provoked the young guard and so horrified the townspeople that already men were taking off their jackets to prepare for a fight.
“Beat me, I love it,” he called down while they lavished dire threats on him. Ivan, it seemed, was now enjoying the scene and did not seem to mind that the actor was getting most of the attention and most of the abuse. Two ladders were fetched and the young guard climbed up to arrest the three men. The actor teased him as he approached. The doctor followed, vowing that he would give them an injection to silence their filthy tongues. Barry had already gone in, and Ivan was trying to mollify them, saying it was all clean fun, when the actor put his arms around the young guard and lathered him with frenzied kisses. Other men hurried up the ladder and pushed the culprits into the bedroom so that people would be spared any further display of lunacy. The french doors were closed, and shouting and arguments began. Then the voices ceased as the offenders were pulled from the bedroom to the room downstairs, so that they could be carted into the police van which was now waiting. People feared that maybe these theatrical villains were armed, while the women wondered aloud if Barry had had these costumes and falsies and things, or if the actors had brought them. It was true that they had come with two suitcases. The Liddy girl had been sent out in the rain to carry them in. The sergeant who now arrived on the scene called to the upper floor but upon getting no answer went around to the back of the house where he was followed by a straggle of people. The rest of us waited in front, some of the opinion that the actor was sure to come back onto the balcony, to take a bow. The smaller children went from the front to the back of the house and returned to say there had been a terrible crash of bottles and crockery. The dining room table was overturned in the fracas. About ten minutes later they came out by the back door, each of the culprits held by two men. The actor was wearing his green suit but his makeup had not been fully wiped off so that he looked vivid and startled like someone about to embark on a great role. Ivan was in his raincoat and threatening aloud to sue unless he was allowed to speak to his solicitor. He called the guards and the people “rabble.” The woman who had fainted went up to Barry and vehemently cursed him while one of the town girls had the audacity to ask the actor for his autograph. He shouted the name of the theater in Dublin to which she could send for it. Some said that he would never again perform in that or any theater, as his name was mud.
As I saw Barry waiting to be bundled into the van like a criminal, I wanted to run over to him, or else to shout at the locals, disown them in some way. But I was too afraid. He caught my eye for an instant. I don’t know why it was me he looked at, except perhaps he was hoping he had a friend, he was hoping our forays into drama had made a bond between us. He looked so abject that I had to look away and instead concentrated my gaze on the shop window, where the weighing scales, the ham slicer and all the precious commodities were like props on an empty stage. From the side of my eye I saw him get into the big black van and saw it drive away with all the solemnity of a hearse.