Hunching into the crook of his arm to light his cigarette. The high heathery bank stretches off desert-like behind him, on towards Drumhanny and Drumcolligan. ‘Bugger’ he says, after short gust of wind quenches his match. ‘Did you ever see what it was like after they bombed Birmingham?’ I ask quizzically. No response, at least not immediately, a cloud of smoke suddenly billets up from the overcoat and he is lit. ‘Birmingham’ he says ‘No, no I didn’t’.
He stoically surveys the black rows of turf footings, our mornings work. I look at him as he inhales deeply, his ruddy, gaunt birdlike face, his long fingers, varnished by decades of tobacco smoke. He won’t chat. Two more drags on his cigarette, more silence. I watch a blue, shiny dragonfly hover and zip along the surface of the dark boghole surface. ‘Terrible thing to do’ he finally says. ‘Cowardly’. I look up but now his attention is on the plantation of birch that marks the boundary of the bog and the small garden meadows beyond. ‘Were you there that time? I ask. ‘No’ comes the swift reply. The reply is so adamant, so instant and so sure in itself. He looks studiously at his company watch, the reward for thirty years of punctuality from Massey-Ferguson, then takes another long drag on his cigarette. From the acrid cloud of smoke around his head some words emerge, 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 squeezes the tip of the cigarette between forefinger and thumb, like an altar boy quenching a candle after mass. The black ended butt is placed securely in his breast pocket. It will emerge on his next smoke-break in half an hour. The fag-breaks in the factory must not have been long enough to smoke a full cigarette. ‘We wouldn’t even speak to each other if we met at a bus stop, in case someone heard the accent’ he turns towards the ordered rows of turf, ‘unless you wanted trouble’. Back to work it is for man and boy, backs bent low on a turf bank in Leitrim in early June.
My grandmother once told me that he had worked on the building of the reservoirs in Wicklow, high up near Blessington and Poulaphuca. It was 1938 and the first chance her youngest brother had to earn a pay packet. Within two years he was in London working with her and two other brothers. He stayed after the War and found work in the midlands and settled 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 some of his cigarettes last night and smoked them in the byre. It was a tip less John Player and we both felt dizzy and nauseous after. The granduncle won’t talk while he works, and he stays with his back bent low the whole time. I pop up every minute or so 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 pismire ants 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?’ ‘He takes a swing from the bottle ‘Oh aye, you could hear it plain, rattling across the sky and I saw it too’ . ‘Wow! I replied excitedly ‘What did it look like?’ I had only seen it this secret weapon missile in comics like ‘Victor’ and ‘Warlord’. ‘I can’t remember’. ‘But You saw it?’ I ask curiously. ‘Didn’t I just tell ya 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 one in his bony fingers.
‘Did you ever hear the V2’ I ask. ‘Yes…. if you heard that one you were alright …… it meant it had passed you by and some other poor bugger was going to get it. Ah yeah. I heard a few of them. Loud bugger too’. He is finally opening up I surmise, ‘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, to explain, to wash away his doubts about me, ‘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’s 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, ‘Ya had better work like the speed of sound, there’s rain comin’