they were dotes growing up
It happens every year, and it was walking home from work today that it chose to happen this year. First it was the dramatic surrounds of the national park that set it off, but later even stronger feelings with a darker edge stirred in my breast as I reached the non-descript housing estates. These are the housing estates that echo with childhood memories under ragged October skies, memories and feelings summoned by the power of damp walled terraced houses; a hypnotic power which is rooted not in any of their specific details, but is instead paradoxically rooted in their very universal non-descriptiveness. This is why they also seem universally familiar, those never-ending conurbations that spider out from our county towns.
I work in the Waste Water Treatment Plant which is located in a copse of woodland on the grounds of Ross Castle. I had quite a workload to get through this week and it spilled over into Sunday. Working on a Sunday is not something I mind too much, as the place is empty, allowing me the full use of the lab without my erratic working methods getting in anyone else’s way. I also like to take the time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast roll, read the papers and watch TV. It’s great. There’s nobody else to bother me.
I worked late today and I had to switch on the lab’s lights an hour before I left, a full two hours before what the newspapers recommend as the official ‘lights on’ time. It was while cleaning up my stuff that I had the first sense of the October pangs, which would later develop into an acute attack of the jib-jibs. I think it was the 5pm lights on that did it.
Walking home, I pass the gothic ruin of a Georgian gatehouse with several chimneys and boarded up windows. It is located on a little patch of grass which seamlessly blends into fine woodland at the rear. On summer mornings this place is attractive in an opaque postcard way. However, it was only this evening, with the jackdaws cawing from its mossy roof that it came into its own for the first time and fully announced itself to me; imposing, gothic, and forlorn. All over the park, ruins and stately homes, oak trees and ravens were uncloaking their true nature. Ross castle, no longer teeming with new-world coffin-dodgers, now majestically soared into a tumultuous sky casting no reflection on the surface of the black lake. The centuries overlapped. I took it all in as I walked; the way the mushroom wind sent hundreds of yellow beech leaves swirling chaotically in the funny half-light and the sad way in which car headlamps shone on the glistening road. It’s not often that it happens to me, tuning into my surrounds in such a manner, but when the world gives up its secrets I make sure to try and take note.
I approached the town wondering whether if each season had such a day, just the one, in which things take on a hallucinogenic significance, and now, as I write this, I wonder if I am using the term ‘hallucinogenic’ to try and describe the act of simply perceiving the world as it is. Further proof of the poverty of our conditioned senses is found in the thrill seekers who methodically comb hillsides for little fungi at this time of year, trying to open doors of perception that have been closed since childhood.
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, these feelings deepened as I walked through the housing estates at the edge of town. I grew up in one such estate, and I first experienced the world through its alleyways, playing fields and forbidden building sites. This evening, like some half-stoned gombeen, I slowed down to people-watch in a similar Killarney housing estate. Nothing changes; a group of ten year olds kicked a football around a muddy playing field with wet echoing slaps. Their mothers cooked mashed potatoes and sausages behind steamy orange windows. I remembered the myriad alliances forged in the complicated politics of childhood, the secret world of ten-year olds, every bit as convoluted as the UN.
The corner boys were there too. Those specimens who crowd round cement walls, hooded and wraith-like. They were playing with fireworks. Not the bulbs that explode into flowers in July skies but a different breed of firework; the Halloween firework. Sneaky whistling things that shoot from Waven pipe and explode with empty cracks. Halloween fireworks are not designed for the crowd-pleasing spectacle. Instead they are designed to blow cat’s arses apart, give oul one’s massive coronaries, and every now and then to blow the fingers off one of the teenage paramilitaries that wield them.
One of the hoods was performing the archetypical banger throw. It went like this, he lit the banger in his hand and the dim sodden air around him filled with acrid blue smoke and fizzing sparks. In a show of machismo he allowed the fuse to burn down almost to the very last before his friends began to scarper. He then fucked it into the air as hard as he could. The aim is to get it to explode in mid-air, which it did satisfactorily, eliciting a barking cacophony from terrified pet dogs. The dogs, along with the elderly, suffer the most at this time of year.
Another banger move is the house attack. In this move a hoody and his cronies will pimp-roll over to the house of say, a retired teacher who’s on a kidney dialysis machine. This move is more subtle than the previous one. The banger is placed in the confined space between a concrete wall and the house gable. This will produce a bowel shattering echo. Once the banger is lit, the hoodies don’t scarper, but instead, with hands in pockets, radiate outwards in a nonchalant circle, only betraying themselves with a flinch as the banger explodes, its sound magnified by the reverberating effects of the surrounding walls.
In the next few weeks anything carbon-based that is not nailed down will disappear and then reappear in one of the fiercely guarded bonfires that mark each estate’s perceived superiority over the others. Bonfire building is a competitive sport. The excitement is not merely in the building of a bonfire but in the daring raids in which material is acquisitioned. With the aid of several gallons of petrol these rain-soaked bonfires somehow always manage to defy the laws of physics by spluttering into life on October 31st. Dangerous things they are and all, what with the winds that can blow at this time of year, and they do sometimes set trees, buildings and perhaps even the odd hoody on fire.
Finally I came to the town. October had struck deep here too. I’ve never believed in that shite that one needs to grow up in a rural setting to fully appreciate the turning year. The light was really dimming now, and a bit of a breeze was blowing. The breeze smelt of leaf-mulch and coal-smoke, with an underlying earthiness betraying the cold and hibernating pasture lands that lie just beyond the town. I passed shop-fronts which were festooned with spooky Halloween decorations. Halloween is the festival which has done the least to shake off its pre-christian identity, as Halloween knows that Jesus can’t compete with it. Its decorations are probably the only festive decorations which empathise with the natural manifestation of the season. Compared to the gaudy incongruity of Christmas tack, the orange and black crepe paper and rubber goblin faces of Samhain perfectly compliment the falling leaves and darkening skies. Like the bonfires, they are there to answer a hidden need within us, a need to somehow reach out and grasp momentarily through the shadows and cracked mirrors of this hollow age towards another time, an age in which it was not a matter of suspending disbelief, but simply believing.
My grandmother used to refer to Halloween masks as false faces. This was a term which always unsettled me. And every year after all the little people have finished calling to the door trick or treating and the porch lights have been switched off, when the bonfire has burned back to a few glowing tyres and the fireworks have become sporadic and distant, there’s always a straggler, a trickortreater who calls alone after all the others; a wee hunchback whose alert eyes ramble gleefully behind the rubbery white face of an old man. It is he who wears a false face and not a mask. In wordless silence he stands on the doorstep looking back at me, his torn binliner-cloak streaked with rain, its black tatters fluttering in the howling wind. I give him some sweets, hoping he will go away quickly; for I cannot know for sure if he is ten, or four thousand and ten years old.