Queen Victoria’s Loo

This post is for Mick’s father, who died this past March. Fiercely intelligent, with a roguish sense of humour, he was a quiet but authoritative presence in the house in Kerry, carrying with him not only the weight of family history but some incalculable burden of his own which only the effervescent presence of my mother-in-law was ever able to truly lift. The day of his funeral was graced by the most lovely weather I have ever experienced in that part of the world: bright sun, a pale sky sporting only decorative wisps of cloud, the air fresh and clear without a hint of rain. Over and over again people said, how beautiful the weather is, until I found myself repeating it as well: not as a platitude, but as a kind of blessing. I can think of no better way to honour my father-in-law than to write about the countryside he loved so much.

For a while I carried a piece of Queen Victoria’s loo in my pocket. At least, I liked to think that it was.

One Saturday about five years ago, my in-laws took me out onto the Lakes of Killarney in the Hanafin family boat. She was a simple craft, long and low in the water, painted red inside, and named Goya 63, after the flat in Madrid where Margaret and Dan first met.

On the Lakes of Killarney, 5 October 2008

We left the harbour, me ducking my head for no reason as we passed under the funny little bridge with chevaux de frise scattered along its walls. The water slid like black glass under the prow of the boat: the glass of seventeenth century houses, pitted with ridges and bubbles. We landed first on Innisfallen, to visit the remains of the monastery there. The sun was at its height and the ribs of the church stood stark and white against the sky. I imagined putting that watery glass into the traceries of the arched windows, and then wondered if there had ever been glass at all, if instead, such as in churches I had seen on the Aran Islands, the wind had been simply allowed to blow through them, even in the harshest depths of winter.

Black Glass, Lakes of Killarney 5 Oct 2008

We had tea at Dinis Cottage, a sturdy yellow house with a view out over Muckross Lake. Its wide windows bear signatures scratched on with diamonds, a nineteenth century custom for couples visiting the Lakes on their bridal tour. I thought of a young Constance Markievicz inscribing her name onto the window of her glory-hole at Lissadell in a fit of boredom, of Yeats walking past Coole’s better known depository of signatures on his way to the Seven Woods. As always, Margaret remembered a local story she knew I would appreciate. She asked Dan if he would take us to the remains of Queen Victoria’s cottage.

Possibly near Derrycunihy, Lakes of Killarney, 13 Oct 2007

My recollections of the rest of our journey are not the clearest. The gentle rocking of the boat as we moved across the lake did not encourage wakefulness. And the weather, as if matching our perambulations in time, had changed from the brisk brightness of the morning on Innisfallen to damp air and indeterminate grey sky. There is a particular kind of rain in Ireland which, rather than falling, hangs in the air in front of you. More palpable than fog but not quite active enough to qualify as drizzle, its moisture seems of little consequence until you realise, as I did, that you are chilled to the bone. So regardless of retrospect, at the moment in question I wasn’t sure on what shore I found myself when I climbed out of Goya 63 and stumbled up the strand to the compact remains of a stone house. The only way I know that I didn’t imagine my visit is the collection of pictures I found on my old mobile phone. This phone dates from the days when cameras in mobiles were a novelty, and so the images are tiny and imprecise, like something glimpsed through the keyhole of a room off limits to visitors. That quality is inherent to my experience of Irish history, and of the stories people tell about it. No wide sweeping vistas of manifest destiny or the march of empire: rather, a series of nested miniatures receding in perspective, their truth glimpsed in flashes immediately contradicted by a shift in focus. The imperfection of these pictures, then, conveys the essence of what I experienced that day on the lake.

Moss and stone on cottage walls, 13 October 2007

In August of 1861, Queen Victoria paid a visit to Killarney, and, so Margaret told me, one of the local landed families built a small house on the shores of the Lake so that the Queen could take afternoon tea in comfort. Margaret continued with the name of the house, that of the family who built it, and an involved subplot about how building the house bankrupted the family and so they left the roof off so that it couldn’t be taxed as a dwelling, and eventually the place had subsided into the collection of ragged stone walls where we now stood. In that very Irish way, there was a fair bit of time compression in the narrative; the roof could have been left off back in the twenties, or it could have been taken off in the night sometime last week.

Cottage entryway, 13 October 2007

The footprint of the house was tiny, pleasingly so, with the remnants of what must have been a lovely staircase. Spindly trees grew from wrecked ornamental chimney pots; a tangle of heavy-branched ivy gripped the entryway. Within the corrugate face of the interior walls, arcs of fallen stone traced complex patterns of remembrance and decay. The lakeside stillness was broken only by Margaret banging around in a tiny closet-like space on the ground floor, which she decided was the bathroom due to its visible remnants of tiled wall. I suggested that it could also have been a small scullery, or a butler’s pantry, for who amongst us is brave enough to imagine Queen Victoria using the pot? In the end, we agreed that making it the loo improved the story, and left it at that.

Stone traces on cottage walls, 13 October 2007

Out on the strip of pebbly shore where the boat was moored, I found a small piece of white tile, about one inch square and roughly the shape of the state of Arkansas, with rust-coloured dirt embedded in the cracks on its surface. It could have washed down from the bathroom in the cottage. Or it could have washed up from the Lake, from anywhere. I preferred the former explanation, and slipped it, still damp, into my pocket. It proved a most excellent worry stone, as it fit neatly between my thumb and forefinger, its edges smooth from its time in the lake. And no matter the temperature or weather, it always retained the heat of my hand. Many months later, it fell from my pocket and was lost in the bathroom at the National Library in Dublin, one of those moments where fate so neatly arranged the elements of the anecdote that I found it difficult to regret the loss.

From the cottage out towards the lake, 13 October 2007

On the trip home Margaret perched in the prow of the boat, keeping watch for a sighting of the eagles recently reintroduced to the parklands around the Lakes. I let my eyes run softly over the treelines of the Purple Mountain: green and ochre and muddy russet brown, the colours of Kerry in autumn. Earlier in the day, before we left the house, I had been listening to John Field’s nocturnes. Their delicate equilibrium came back to me, informing the flight of wood pigeons darting for cover in the twisted bracken. Always in these nocturnes, there is a lightness of touch beyond that of musicianship, softening the big Romantic flourishes. This sense of emotion held gently in check, and the poignancy of that restraint, fits the Kerry countryside, its unpredictable weather, my visits to this rainy corner of a small island crowded with memory.

From behind me, the steady burr of the motor a soothing presence, Dan quietly encouraged me to borrow his scarf, button up my jacket. It looked as if some weather was blowing in.

Fishing on the Lakes of Killarney, 5 October 2008

amrh / Killarney, October 2007, and Mougins, late autumn 2012

** In the years since I wrote down the beginnings of this piece. I have done some desultory research into the specific house I must have visited that afternoon with Margaret and Dan. The literary spirit in me has no real desire to discover the truth of the matter: I saw what I saw, I enjoyed writing about it, and that should be enough. But the well-trained historian, whom I try to keep distracted in some corner of my brain when I write these kinds of posts, is refusing to let me off the archival hook. The tension between these two voices is an important part, I suspect, of what makes me a writer. So in the interests of my rather tenuous relationship with my Muse, I will throw a sop to the barking pedant, and attach links to pictures of the following likely suspects: Glena Cottage, and Queen’s Cottage, Derrycuhiny.

 

In the Winter Garden

As the year draws to a close, I’ll take a few pixels to thank everyone who has kept up with Diary of a Vague American. I started writing it as…well, as a way to start writing. Over the last eighteen months, the Diary has led me down several paths: as a way to process my evolving expatriate life; a retrospective wandering through my experiences in Ireland, as my thirty-year love affair with that odd little island moves into yet another phase; and, most unexpectedly, a means of rediscovering the pleasures of this most solitary art form. When I stare at page or computer screen, and words refuse to drop down from whatever numinous country they inhabit, I see my seven or eight-year old self, twirling round and round in the tire swing that hung from the massive sycamore tree in the back yard. It’s always a blindingly sunny day in early summer, and my beloved puppy is curled up beneath me in the shade cast by the tire. I am scribbling, scribbling, scribbling, as if my life depended upon it, an indifferently chosen blue Bic pen moving at a ferocious rate across the pages of my battered composition notebook, with a fierce joy in my heart, a sense of rightness, of belonging to the world, that I have rarely recaptured in my adult life. In pursuing this Diary, I have been in that state again, much to my relief, my delight. And as a former performing artist, I am well aware that I could not have done so without the knowledge that someone out there was reading what I wrote. So for that kindness, I offer you my thanks.

There was movement on other creative fronts. As some of you are aware, my short piece Proserpine reached a new audience this year, following its publication in the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. The editorial feedback on this piece included such gratifying words as “delicate, graceful”; ”lyrical, slow-paced and mellifluous,” and, in an instance of the reader finding something I wasn’t even aware I was doing, “elegantly invok[ing] a theme as Lethean as Eleusinian.”  My thanks to all of you who helped me weather the occasional squalls of my first time through this rewarding process.

I have also been asked to serve on the Advisory Committee for the proposed celebrations in Paris of Oscar Wilde’s one hundred and sixtieth birthday. In my Galway post-grad days, Oscar was barely a blip on my academic radar. His work and milieu fell just outside my concerns, and he was only beginning to be understood and embraced as an Irish writer. Indeed, my most in-depth acquaintance with “that limitless subject” was my tendency to tipsily recite The Selfish Giant or The Nightingale and the Rose when asked for “a party piece” at DramSoc booze-ups. Wilde 2014 is being led by the Société Oscar Wilde en France and DC Rose of the OSCHOLARS. I’m happy to have a chance to get back in the arts admin saddle, and to work with a diverse group of scholars on something new.

I am still not sure what the Diary will become. I do know that I need to be brave, and attempt to reach a larger audience. In that regard, I plan to start submitting some of my work to other outlets: Brevity, for example. It would be of great help to me if you could take a moment to let me know which post(s) was your favourite, either via private email or in the comments section below. I am always surprised by the reaction to those posts which I find unsuccessful, but to which you respond with enthusiasm. Any feedback, even that of a most informal nature, will be most welcome.

In closing, I especially want to thank Maddy at Peirene Press, who may not remember that the blog was her idea in the first place; Jeri Smith-Ready, whose generosity with her own readership gave this blog its “most views of all time”; and Mick the most patient of all husbands, in whom, always and forever, I am well pleased.

Woodstock from below the Winter Garden, Inistioge, County Kilkenny 19 Dec 09

amrh / Mougins, December 2012

the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

1914 I: Peace

Now, God be thanked Who has watched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Rupert Brooke, from the sonnet cycle “1914”
http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Brooke.html
Noel Olivier, Maitland Radford, Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, 1911. Collection National Portrait Gallery, UK, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw66824/Noel-Olivier-Maitland-Radford-Virginia-Woolf-ne-Stephen-Rupert-Brooke

Futility

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Wilfred Owen
http://www.bbc.co.uk/poetryseason/poems/futility.shtml
The Burren, April 2010

Big Country, Remembrance Day (live in Reading, 1986)
— amrh, Valbonne 2012

Fall

She was all I could hold onto, in that moment. Her black button eye, always turned towards me; her grey feathers laid in neat scallops against her slender form. At the base of her throat a sudden flash of white: intricate, honeycombed, like an old-fashioned collar framing a pretty girl’s face. Back and forth she paraded across the terrace, her steps precise on well-formed toes, pausing only to search for crumbs between the cracks of the travertine slabs. Over and over, the same three steps, the same sharp stab of the delicate head. Behind her serried ranks of treetops melted into one another, their dying leaves gorging on the unaccustomed moisture in the chill air. Mist and wood smoke in tendrils fine as silk threaded their way through the fracturing branches. The sun, struggling with misshapen clouds, burned the back of my neck, failed to reach my bare shivering legs. At a table nearby, a man on his cell phone quietly threatened his girlfriend with a beating, his Northern Irish accent hideous, surreal.

Words drifted onto the blank page before me: sluggishly, then not at all.

This is how it starts, I thought. One minute you’re admiring the ruff on a bird’s neck, and the next she’s singing to you in Greek. The realisation, the relief at the ease with which it could be accomplished, left me almost giddy.

Rarely have I strayed so close to it, that fork in the road through the obscure wood.

I left that place, pausing only to toss towards the dove the crusts of my sandwich. Whether as a gesture to ward off evil, or in simple gratitude, I cannot say.

Trees near the Pré des Arts, Valbonne, Autumn 2012

amrh / Valbonne, October 2012

Some Modest Publicatory News

(with apologies for cross-posting)

My short piece Proserpine appeared last week in the latest volume of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. It’s an electronic journal focusing on contemporary interpretations of nineteenth century culture, and this special issue revolves around children and creativity.

Julia, Leslie, and Virginia Stephen (Woolf), 1892; image via http://woolfonline.com/?q=image/tid/93&page=3, Copyright © 2006 Smith College Libraries

Proserpine is a short piece of speculative fiction about a meeting between Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the young Virginia Stephen, who would later become Virginia Woolf. The story imaginatively engages with how a child of the late Victorian period might observe her world. It investigates the idea of Woolf as a “neo-Victorian,” tracing her Modernist sensibilities to the deep roots of her Victorian childhood. It can also be enjoyed, more simply, as a story about an unusual child who meets an equally unusual woman on a warm spring day.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (oil, 1874); image via http://www.rossettiarchive.org

To access Proserpine, please click here: http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/; and on the left-hand side of the page, click the heading that reads “Past Issues.” Then click on the heading for “5:1  – 2012” for the Special Issue entitled The Child in Neo-Victorian Arts and Discourse: Renegotiating 19th Century Concepts of Childhood. You’ll find Proserpine about half-way down the page. There is also, to my simultaneous horror and delight, the first critical analysis of my work in the guest editors’ introductory piece (the first essay in the table of contents).

amrh / Mougins, October 2012

Scott Fitzgerald’s Beach

Half an hour’s drive from our house is a place I call “Scott Fitzgerald’s Beach.” No doubt it has a more formal appellation. I call it that to distinguish it from “our beach,” which lies on an easily overlooked curve a further ten minutes down the Cap d’Antibes. Narrow, pebbly, ending abruptly in a decaying concrete jetty, our beach can claim only dubious charms, and this lack of tourist appeal happily guarantees that for most of the year it is sparsely populated. Rather than layers of oiled sunseekers, packed together like so many sardines on the grill, at our beach one finds the normality of local families, joined by an occasional spear fisher or stand-up paddle surfer making their way backwards out into the water. And always there is a representative of my favourite tribe, la maman seule. Topless, stretch marks unashamedly on display, she picks the sand out of her goûter while keeping a close eye on her small son who, clad in a full Batman outfit accessorised by waterwings, is tippy-toeing it towards the waves.

But in high season even our beach can be overrun. When that happens, we retreat back up the Boulevard John F. Kennedy, and turn into the warren of little streets to the south. The names here are by turns evocative (Chemin de l’Olivette, Chemin des Chênes Verts: Road of the Little Olives, Way of the Green Oaks) or, to a writer’s eye, happily eccentric (Chemin des Nielles, la Rampe de Graillon: Blight Road, the Greasy Ramp). On this particular day, we find ourselves on the Avenue Mrs. Beaumont, named after the American woman who gave her nearby villa Eilenroc to the city of Antibes as a cultural centre. Parking illegally, along with everyone else, we make our way on foot down towards the sea. Any houses which can be seen over the high walls girding these streets are immaculately cared for. No growing thing is parched, no car covered in dust; no summer detritus of wet towels or swimsuits decorate these balconies. The season is acknowledged, but held to its best behaviour. The scent of hibiscus and bougainvillea, from fist-sized blossoms spilling in unruly waves over stone walls, is heady, narcotic. Everything shimmers in the heat. The only sounds here are the slap of sandals on pavement, the puff of laboured breath on the still humid air.

Bormes Les Mimosas, 21 July 2011

A sharp turn, and there’s the sea glimmering at the end of the allée, reached not directly from the path, but through a door in a crumbling wall. I follow Mick along a track tangled with pine scrub, the needles sticky and resinous against my arms, the air around me alive with cicadas. The soft scramble of the tropical gardens behind us melts like a fever dream. Beyond a stand of cypress trees lies the cleansing shock of white rock against pale blue sky, the darker blue of the sea. Looking out towards the horizon, for once free of jet skis and house-sized yachts, I think, Scott Fitzgerald swam here. Zelda waved at him from her perch on the rocks, and poured something sweet from a silver shaker into her improbable cocktail glass. My inner pedant remarks that these speculations are literary fantasy. The Hôtel du Cap and its “short dazzling beach” are fifteen minutes walk down the coast, behind an intricate fence that rears up from the path to ensure that no common folk will pass. But the initial thought returns, refines itself: this is the view that he saw. For a moment, I feel that rare connection between this place and the one I come from; I sense the presence of others who came here in search of reinvention.

Fishermen off the Cap d'Antibes, 15 August 2010

I am not at ease in the ocean. Years of childhood lessons at the local pool with a succession of bored, underpaid teenagers produced a competent swimmer, but not a comfortable one. The moment I enter any significant body of water, I am eight years old again, blind, pale and shivering, wearing a hand-me-down swimsuit two sizes too large, the straps held together in back with a shoelace, waiting for the inevitable moment when I will jump clumsily into the water and the straps will fall down, to the raucous amusement of the sidelines. Being an American child, I was made to suffer through various forms of amateur aversion therapy: forced by an impatient lifeguard to jump off the high dive after losing my nerve; someone tossing me into an oncoming wave at the Jersey Shore with shouted instructions to “just get over it.” None of it had any effect. I do not care that we all come from the water, or that the sea, as Jimmy Joyce would have it, is our great sweet mother. My ocean is a jungle cat in the long grass, beautiful but unpredictable in her whims, waiting for a suitable candidate to pluck from the herd. I prefer to watch her from a distance: cultivating what I claim is a healthy respect, but what I privately acknowledge is fear.

My husband is happier in the water than out of it. A strong, confident swimmer, some of his most cherished memories are of his father teaching him to swim as a toddler in Dublin: first at the pool in Baldoyle, and then in the bay at the Clontarf Baths. “I remember waterwings, at first,” he says, “and then just leppin’ right in.” By the age of five, he was cycling on his own to the Baths almost every day, and so to him, the ocean means freedom.

Watching Mick swim is one of the quiet joys of my life. Liberated in a visibly joyous way from whatever cares remain behind on shore, it seems the height of foolishness not to join him. So we have an agreement, which I try to honour as often as I can. After fussing rather longer than necessary with the pre-swim routine of towels, sunscreen, lip salve, I force myself to take off my glasses, tucking them safely into the depths of the beach bag. Then, clinging to Mick’s hand like a small child entering a stranger’s house, I allow him to lead me to the water’s edge.

Along the Cap d'Antibes, 15 August 2010

The shoreline is treacherous at Scott Fitzgerald’s beach. There is no smooth transition from sand to wave. Instead Mick guides me through a series of jagged defiles, passages slippery with algae and seaweed. Along the bottom of one fissure is a several-days dead eel, oddly stretched at full length. Stranded by the tide, perhaps. But its careful placement suggests a sign or portent, an arcane warning left by a retreating genius loci. The rivulets around our feet grow more insistent, develop patterns, frequency. As the water deepens, so do the colours of the wrack beneath the surface. Their workaday shades, rusty and faded further up on beach, intensify to vibrant jewel tones: peridot, onyx, smoky topaz. Streaming languidly in the current, they cry out to be touched.

That is a dangerous proposition, as one is more likely to come up with a handful of irritated sea urchin rather than the treasures of the Orient. But I’m feeling brave today. Once my feet can no longer touch bottom, I slip from Mick’s grasp and swim over to a massive boulder. I climb up onto the rock and boldly take a seat, steadying myself with my feet, safe in their funny little rubber shoes. The sun, striking through the surface of the water, reveals tiny silver fish nibbling at my ankles. There is a girl crouching on a rock by the shoreline. Her dark hair lifts on the same breeze stirring the branches in the cypress grove nearby. Brown-skinned, long-limbed, she is poised effortlessly on that rock as if sprung from it, a young goddess gazing out over her domain. Further out, at the limit of my vision, Mick has cleared the last enfilade of rocks. Diving beneath the surface, he is transformed into some great seabird, one who is strangely at home in both his native elements. Slowly, with rhythmic precision, his broad shoulders and long arms slice and pull, striking out for deeper waters.

Even by the impossible standards of this place, it is an exceptionally beautiful day.

amrh, who has been working on this piece for three months and needs to be done with it
Antibes and Mougins, Summer 2012

Cap d'Antibes, 15 August 2010

Gecko Gecko

There is a gecko living in my parsley plant. Yesterday I went out to the terrace to deposit the remains of a cold cup of tea, and startled him with an unexpected shower. Long, sinuous, he scuttled up to the edge of the pot and rested there while breathing rapidly, his dark khaki skin pulsing against the bright green leaves. I was reminded of the gecko who used to dart in and out of my study on the top floor of the house in Valbonne. He was a much smaller specimen, and liked to hunt in the early evening shadows thrown onto the walls by the battered floor lamps scattered around the room. That gecko also had a habit of appearing out of nowhere, arriving in the middle of an argument, at the height of a panicked crisis of faith. It has been a difficult summer. So I took the apparition of his parsley-loving cousin as a good omen.

We were both still for a while, breathing in the heady smells of sodden earth rising on bone-dry air, of ordinary green plants growing. I remembered with amusement the various choices I made when improvising “my ideal animal” in acting classes: cat, wolf, crow. You do not choose your animal guide. Rather, he unexpectedly turns up in your parsley pot on a scorching August afternoon.

amrh / Mougins, August 2012
**who is also working on what has proved to be a complicated post about F. Scott Fitzgerald on the beach

Ferns in the Devil's Glen, Co. Wicklow, May 2009

Overheard in a Bookshop

Forgive me, but I must alliterate. A big bluff Englishman has barreled into the bookshop. All he’s missing are the words “JOHN BULL” tricked out in neon and floating, carnival-style, over his balding ginger head.

Mr. B: Here, I’ll take this. (hands over second-hand paperback of Michener’s Centennial, complete with nostalga-inducing seventies cover art)

Me: Good choice.

Mr. B: Uh, have you got a copy of that Fifty Shades thing?

Me: Yes. It’s…

Mr. B: Not for me! For my wife!

Me: Yes, they’re over on the…

Mr. B: (pointing frantically) She’s just outside!

Me:…OK?

(To his visible relief, said wife now enters shop: sturdy, cheerful, face partially obscured by a cloud of white frizzy hair, leading a Lhasa Apso who resembles her rather exactly.)

Mr. B: They’ve got that Fifty Shades nonsense!

Mrs. B: Oh yes?

Mr. B: It’s for her, you see. (He is still pointing.)

Me: (addressing Mrs. B, for fear of any misunderstanding) Would you like the first volume?

Mrs. B: Yes pl…

Mr. B: How much is it?

Me: Fourteen euro.

Mr. B: (explosively) Fourteen euro? Christ that’s an awful lot for that kind of thing! I don’t know why she wants to read it anyhow!

Me (extremely sotto voce): Oh, I think I have an idea…

amrh / Valbonne, August 2012

Bormes Le Mimosa moped, July 2011

Overheard in a Bookshop

Bling One and Bling Two are in the house. Flowing caftans, big sunglasses, the season’s correctly bejeweled sandals on their tanned feet, they hover before me in a cloud of discreetly expensive scent. The younger of the pair holds a baguette clutch covered in fluffy white fur and accessorised with a twisted strand of amber beads. I take it to be the latest Cavalli bag until it yawns, and find it is a Maltese.

I am already reaching for a copy of Fifty Shades of Smut from our stockpile behind the counter when the older woman asks me:

Do you have a copy of Tender is the Night?

Me: Yes, of course.

Daughter: See Mother, I told you they’d have it.

Mother: I’m looking for a paperback copy.

Me: We have paper, and also a really lovely hardback edition…have you read it before?

Mother: Yes, many times.

Me:…because it reads differently here, when he dreamed it up.

Mother: Yes, I know, I’m reading a biography of the Murphys, Gerald and Sara? So I thought I would read the Fitzgerald again. I’m really looking forward to it.

I lead the way to the Classics section, mother, daughter, and Maltese in my wake, happy to have been proven a snob.

— amrh, Valbonne 2012

Gourdon village, 2 December 2011

Simbelmynë

Under the Crepe Myrtle 2 April 2011

If you knew me between the ages of twelve and twenty-two, inevitably you knew my dog. She was the first and perhaps only true coup de foudre of my life, arriving into it by rolling down my piano teacher’s basement staircase. At that time she was just under a year old, and in my eyes she never altered after that first encounter: a stocky tootsie roll of a dog, covered in riotous black fur under which she weighed less than five pounds, and resembling, as one of my brother’s friends once memorably put it, a mop without a handle. Mrs. M. the piano teacher had found her wandering about on the front lawn, and a round of posters and inquiries had provided no further clue as to why a purebred Shih Tzu, collarless but spayed and with all her shots, was adrift in the neighbourhood. The vet who examined her suggested that she had been tossed from the window of a passing car. To this day, the idea fills me with rage.

In addition to her gifts as a teacher, Mrs. M. had a definite flair for naming pets. The family’s aging beagle, an overweight and profoundly cranky soul who was banished to the garden at the start of each lesson, was called Toolshed. Mrs. M., in a moment of indulgent fantasy, had named the foundling Yum Yum. It was obvious that my teacher was quite smitten with the furry little maid. Given that one of the puppy’s chief joys was to stretch out full length beneath the piano pedals and fall asleep listening to a Mozart sonata, the infatuation was understandable. But Toolshed was determined to spend his golden years in sole possession of house and grounds, enjoying his well-deserved, slightly flatulent coma. So a compromise was reached. I was allowed to adopt Yum Yum only if, in addition to the usual promises, I also agreed to bring her along to my piano lesson each week.

And so this improbable creature left Mrs. M’s house in my arms, and rode home on my lap: two positions from which she rarely moved over the next decade. As with that often observed cliché about dog and mistress, she and I resembled each other in a gently comical way:  coats all black even at the height of summer, relieved only by a blaze of white at the throat; hair short and wayward in places, long and tending to mat in others, always blowing into eyes or mouth and the object of much parental frustration. But Yum Yum was also the canine embodiment of the best parts of myself. She was intensely devoted and fiercely loyal, unafraid to defend herself or her pack against all threats, equally eager for an adventurous walk or a lazy sprawl with a book on the slowly turning tire swing. Despite her possible early mistreatment, she was a sturdy little thing, and only began to decline at around age thirteen, when her kidneys slowly failed her. She waited for me to come home from Ireland one spring, and then bravely took her last trip to the vet: the only time I ever saw her lose her aristocratic sang froid.

When I visit the house where I grew up, I have a little evening ritual. After the dinner dishes are finished, but before the crossword puzzles come out, I take a glass of whatever I’m drinking and head out into the back yard. Up at the top, beside my mother’s spectacular crepe myrtle, are the resting places of the Ryan family dogs. Under a piece of slate is Kelly the standard poodle, who was beautiful but not too bright, and met a sad, early end. Behind him is a squat rock which in springtime is surrounded by white, star-shaped flowers. Being no botanist, I’ve named these simbelmynë, after the flowers which Tolkien placed on the tombs of his kings of Rohan, and which he also called Evermind. The flat top of Yum Yum’s rock is just my size. After I sit down on it, and settle my glass in the scruff, I become conscious of her small form curled up beneath me. Fur and flesh are long gone, but her bones are still there, a link to who I was and the things that made me. So I talk to her. Depending upon how the day has gone, I crack a joke, or ask for advice. But mostly I just tell her how much I miss her, and how I’m waiting for her to come charging up the hill and flop down next to me. She’ll fall asleep with her head on my feet, while I watch the fireflies dance on the gentle crest of the hill, crafting patterns and stories from their traces in the gathering dark.

amrh / Arlington VA and Mougins, June 2012