I picked potatoes, stooped over in a Hopalong Cassidy sloppy
Joe and baggy, khaki shorts with the July sun over my head
and my seven-year-old brother at my shoulder. He laughed
as he scraped the burnt, brown soil from the spuds to reveal
navy-blue fists of balls that shone like crystal.
“They’re beautiful”, he said, angling
his head to mine and keeping the laugh in his voice; “Like
Grannie’s Christmas decorations”.
His words tailed off happily as he dropped the blue-skins
into the Hessian bag at his feet and forged ahead of me
in a parallel furrow, humming to himself and the broad green
leaves that brushed his cheek as he rose and dipped like
a pecking cockerel.
I felt the ache in my spine and the earth under my fingernails,
my hands ruddied with the week of sun and the flaking clay.
I rubbed it between fingers and thumbs like the Warhorse
tobacco that Mr Cunningham, our elderly neighbour, pared
from a brownish, black block with his tortoiseshell penknife
before filling his ancient pipe and watched as the brown
and beige bits and blobs of heavy loam fell back to earth.
“Everything returns to the ground”, said Brother
Maher our Physics master, “Everything that ever was,
from the day God created it, is still with us, but first
of all it goes into the ground”.
He’d said it was the big law of Physics and the law
must always be obeyed, especially God’s law.
My understanding of those laws, whether God’s or
Isaac Newton’s, was as empty as the drills that stretched
long and straight behind the heels of my mutton dummies
and my ignorance as clear as the wide sky that sellotaped
itself to the sea in a shimmering horizon far beyond the
lighthouse at Cranfield point.
“Dinner hour, dinner hour” shouted Missus Digney
from the half-door of the whitewashed cottage, as she rang
an old, school hand-bell in time with her calling. Her voice
was of the country with its lumbering vowels and consonants
as round as the underbelly of Buttercup the milk cow, a
voice that sounded sleepy and unrushed even in a temper,
a voice that was as strange as it was familiar.
We ate boiled potatoes, “Like balls of flour these
are”, she said, from biscuit coloured bowls with spoons
as big as shovels in little soft and city hands and washed
them along with cloying, creamy milk that had never seen
a bottle. “Good work this morning boys” she
said, the crusty milk glistening on the shy line of silver
hair on her upper lip and crinkling as she spoke; “Your
Daddy tells me your people were from Donegal. Sure, nobody
is from the city at all don’t you know.”
My brother laughed the innocent chortle of the peasant
and rubbed the remains of his meal from his mouth with exaggeration.
I watched as Missus Digney lit her clay pipe with a spill
from the fire and sat back contentedly in the bleached discomfort
of the high-backed, wooden kitchen chair.
Gypo, the border collie, the black and white waves of his
coat catching the shafts of sunlight that broke through
one window, chose a spot half in and half out of the beams
and settled on the coolness of the large square-sets that
floored the entire room. His sigh, after a meal of mashed
oats and potatoes, was the sound of contentment itself.
A morning’s work done to perfection, sheep who knew
their master grazing peacefully in the meadow, a top-dog
having his day. But Gypo was an oul fraud.
The sheep had been sold that Spring at the market in Ballynahinch
to pay for the one hundred and one things that would keep
Missus Digney’s body and daily communicant’s
soul together for another few years.
Daddy had told us that the old woman, with her dead husband
and both sons buried under a simple marker in the hill cemetery
at Mass Forth chapel, would need two strong men to harvest
her potato crop and, despite his advice that “You
must never volunteer for anything”, he smiled like
a successful, recruiting sergeant when my brother and I
had shot up our arms and begged for the jobs.
Two days of back-break and badly-sung Beatle songs later,
we had cleared the Digney field. The furrows lay as empty
as Our Lord’s tomb on Easter Sunday, bare, like open
wounds to the salt winds that blew across the one square
acre from the dunes and beach and bitter tides to the east.
Fierce battalions of purple-Busbied thistles stood guard
at its edges, shifting from foot to foot as the breeze became
a wind and then a gale, their heads bending and unbending
in a dance of survival, their rhythm unbroken despite the
swirls and eddies of an unseen music.
Gorse and best, butter-yellow crocus, prickly and bad tempered
shared their ranks like unwelcome regiments, breaking the
wind into gusting slivers and standing firm like a vanguard,
and even the murderous crows who cawed away the hours like
wild cuckoo clocks refused to sit with them.
“We’ll have to get you fellas paid”, said
Missus Digney, walking to the oak fireboard, her bedroom
slippers tired and dragging in little shuffling steps.
“No Missus,” I heard myself say; “My Daddy
says that the big bag of spuds you gave us is more than
enough.” She smiled, directly under the glass, framed,
sepia photograph of a man in navy uniform that was anchored
firmly to the fireplace wall. “Your dad is an old
navy man himself and knows well that every sailor loves
a wee treat.” She placed the Free State sixpence,
with the coursing greyhound facing upward, in my hand and
then another in my brother’s and closed each with
a warm and gentle finality that ended any argument.
“Get up before Eddie’s shop closes and spend
that silver on yourselves – right now”.
We ran to the redbrick bungalow at the crossroads, where
two lanes no wider than a Morris Minor encountered their
own self-importance, our arms waving like wild men who shout
to hear themselves, thinking of brightly-coloured paper
wrappers and the shiny, silver paper that insulated the
dark smell and sweetness of chocolate.
The blue balls of flour were forgotten, the tired limbs
revived, the old dog, the years cast aside, bounding ahead
Brother Maher’s words would be remembered, of course,
not at the Physics exam where law-breaking took on a new
dimension, but rather, under a wide July sky, facing the
four fonts of a simple marker in a hill cemetery that had
grown twenty more crops of grass.
“Everything returns to the ground”, he’d
said and “The law must always be obeyed”.