He hunches into the crook of his arm to light his cigarette. Behind him the high heathery bank stretches off desert-like, towards Drumhanny and Drumcolligan. ‘Bugger’ he says, a short gust of wind has quenched the match before he is lit. ‘Did you ever see what it was like after they bombed Birmingham?’ I ask quizzically. ‘Birmingham, no, no I didn’t’. He looks towards the black rows of turf footings we have made this morning.I look at him as he inhales deeply. Is he thinking or is he terminating my line of enquiry? Two more drags on his cigarette, silence. I watch a blue shiny dragon fly hover and zip along the surface of the bog hole. ‘Terrible thing to do’ he finally says. ‘Cowardly’. I look up but now he is surveying the plantation of birch that marks the boundary of the bog. ‘Were you there at that time? I ask. ‘No’ comes the swift reply. The reply is so adamant and sure that its clear he does not want to be associated with those events. He looks at his company watch carefully, then takes another long drag on his cigarette. From the cloud of smoke around his head words come slowly, ‘but I was not far away, I was in Coventry. Yes. You had to keep your head down if you were Irish that time’.
Carefully he decapitates the cigarette between his nicotine-stained forefinger and thumb, like an altar boy putting out a candle. The black ended butt is placed securely in his breast pocket. It will be taken out on his next smoke break in half an hour. The breaks in the Massey Ferguson Plant must have only been two minutes long. Not enough time to smoke a full cigarette. ‘We wouldn’t even speak to each other if we met at a bus stop, in case someone heard our accent’ he adds ‘unless you wanted trouble’. Back to work. A man and boy bent low on a turf bank in Leitrim in early June.
My grandmother once told me that her brother had worked on the building of the reservoirs in Wicklow, high up near Blessington and Poulaphuca. It was 1938 and his first chance to earn a pay packet. Within two years though he was in London working with his sister, my granny, and two other brothers. He stayed after the War and found work in Coventry. Every year he comes home to help on the farm. Not much of a holiday I think, making hay, rearing turf. My brother and I stole one of his cigarettes last night and smoked it in the byre. It was a tip less John Player and we both felt dizzy after it. The granduncle won’t talk while he works, and he stays back bent down the whole time. I pop up every minute like a cormorant coming up for air. An ocean of unturned turf lies ahead of us, at least another week of hard labour, my annual penance.
‘What was it like in the Blitz?’ I ask.He sits now, cross-legged, his coat spread under him to keep the pismires from stinging his arse. Slowly he opens the bottle of sweet milky tea. ‘That’s a long time ago’. I pretend not to hear him and press on, ‘Did you ever hear the doodle-bug?’ ‘Yes, you could hear it plain, rattling across the sky and I saw it too’ he replied. ‘Wow! What did it look like?’ I asked excitedly. ‘I can’t remember’. ‘But You saw it?’ I ask curiously. ‘Didn’t I just tell you I saw it’. I open the biscuit tin and unwrap the napkin covering the sandwiches. I offer him one and he takes the egg and onion in his bony fingers.
‘Did you ever hear the V2’ I ask. ‘Yes…. if you heard it you were alright …… it meant it had passed you by and some other poor bugger was going to get it. Yes. I heard a few of them. Loud too’. He is finally opening up I think, ‘They are supersonic that is why you would have heard them even though they had passed’. He looks at me through his narrow eyes, weighing me up. I feel the need to continue, ‘you see that’s why you hear them after they’ve passed, they are travelling faster than the speed of sound’’. ‘Who told you that?’ he grunts. ‘It is science, it was travelling more than the speed of sound, that’s more than 800 miles an hour’. He pulls the cigarette butt from his pocket and lights it. ‘I don’t think so’.
Slowly he gets up, picks up his coat and begins to pat it, dusting it down. ‘I saw one over Croydon you see, and it wasn’t going that fast’. He stubs the butt out on the bank and begins to turn back towards the long runs of turf. As he does, he mutters, ‘We had better work like the speed of sound, there is rain coming’