Literary Orphans

Home is the Sailor, Home from the Sea
by Paul McGranaghan

zak-milofsky-38

Grandma’s house was in the middle of a row of two-up-two-down terraces. Like all the neighbouring houses it had a tiny front garden with a low wall around it. Like all the front garden walls in the street, Grandma’s wall had a little line of rusted studs along it.

“Those” my mother told me “were where the railings used to be. During the war they were cut off and melted down make bullets. They were going to melt down the church-bell too, but your grandfather and some of his mates buried it up in the graveyard. They dug it up after the war. Guess what they put on the gravestone?”

“What?”

“A. Bell”. She laughed. There were many such stories surrounding grandfather. An old photograph hung on grandmother’s parlour wall. It was sepia tinted and tattered at the corners, from the age it had spent without a frame. It showed a man with an eye-patch and the open-collared uniform of a British sailor. What I liked about him most was the mouth that looked like it was about to laugh, as though you had told him a joke and, despite the missing eye, he was going to laugh. You can’t help but like people who look like they’re enjoying your company.

Grandma’s house also had a back-yard with a coal-bunker and a shed by the door of which was propped an anchor painted glossy black. This had been grandfather’s and it stood here to show that he had given up life as a sailor and had finally dropped anchor in the middle of a row of tiny terraced houses far from the sea.

There was little to remind people that grandfather had ever lived there. There was the anchor and the photograph laughing from the wall, the sea-chest and the whiskey jug. The whiskey jug stood in the glass cabinet next to the souvenirs grandmother’s grandchildren had brought her over the years.

“He would always call putting water in the whiskey ‘baptising the whiskey’”.

“Aye”, grandmother would sigh. “Aye, the baptismal font. That’s what he called the jug.”

The baptismal font was surrounded by dolls from Africa and little fat bottles wrapped in wicker from Spain. There were spoons and snow-globes, and pom-poms with googly eyes and ribbons with the name of the place they were bought printed on them. There were icons too; icons of somber wood from Russia and gleaming silver from the Baltic States. Icons carved in oak from Ireland, and marble from Italy.

Her love of icons went beyond the confines of the glass cabinet. Every available space was given over to statues of saints and pictures of various popes. On one wall was a tapestry of Da Vinci’s last supper brought back from Lebanon by my uncle. There were statues of The Child of Prague and The Virgin Mary on the window sill, facing out into the garden. Saint Martin of Porres opened his arms as he stood on the television.  There were gruesome Spanish saints with jaundiced skin seated next to skulls. There was a portrait of Padre Pio with his stigmata hidden under his fingerless mittens. I always thought he looked like an affable tramp. There were small statues of a white-faced St. Francis, and big ones of the Crucifixion. There were pictures of girls dressed like nuns being visited by Saint Maries dressed as Vestal Virgins. A statue of the virgin and child looked out into the back yard, the massive infant being hoisted with no sign of a grimace by his willowy mother. And in the mist of the celestial host, there was my grandfather with his eye-patch and his sailor’s grin.

His sea-chest was an imposing barrel-vaulted case of wood and metal with a massive lock. The keyhole was shaped like a pawn or an hourglass. This vast cask had stood at the end of grandfather’s bunk as he served on ships around the world. What mysteries did it contain? Perhaps here were lost Soviet secrets from his encounters with comrades who visited his ships to exchange matyushkas, vodka and lomo cameras for whiskey, cigarettes and pin-ups. Perhaps an agent sensing grandfather’s keen, and only, eye for an opportunity had shipped him coded secrets, only for them to be forgotten at the bottom of the sea-chest as grandfather braved storms at sea and downed vodka with his shipmates over card games at a listing table.

Or perhaps there were cakes of opium or cannabis from his time shipping freight on the Bosphorus. I imagined all manner of bric-a-brac: shrunken heads from the South Pacific, African idols with faces like Picasso portraits, maybe a gun, one of the many floating around after the war, a Luger perhaps, swapped by a Soviet Jack Tar for some Western contraband. Or maybe it was just filled with shells.

It was impossible to know. The sea-chest that had once stood at the foot of grandfather’s bunk now stood at the foot of grandmother’s bed. The key, if there still was one, was never to be seen. All my cousins and I were left with were endless childhood fantasies of piracy and adventure with which we heaped the sea-chest until it overflowed.

I don’t remember grandma’s house for the religious iconography, nor for the metal-studded wall, but for the endless stream of visitors. So many neighbours and relatives called around in the course of a day that grandma left her front-door key in the latch so people could let themselves in. it was in the nature of the neighbourhood never to commit a crime. The people were not wealthy, but neither were they thieves.

Grandma had maintained this tradition ever since grandfather went away. For a long time I thought that his meant he’d died, but there was no grave in the cemetery to mark his final resting place. It was father who’d confided in me that his father-in-law had vanished one night after a row with Grandma, returning to the sea that was his true home. I was sworn to secrecy and never to mention the subject again. Well, it hardly matters now.

The tale had set my mind reeling. I imagined grandfather, his anchor resting by the shed wall, spending his days far from the sound of the waves, far from its roving creatures and soaring birds, removed from its icy poles and hot blue tropics, baptizing his whiskey and dreaming of the open ocean. I pictured him that fateful night, stuffing a duffel bag with his waterproofs and winter clothes and closing the door behind him. Perhaps Grandma had started leaving the key in the lock in the hope that one day grandfather would use it to let himself in.

The key was turned by many hands. But grandfather’s was not one of them. I imagined him out there, on the great empty spaces of the globe, old now and weather-beaten, his skin tanned by foreign suns and creased by bitter winds. There was nothing of modernity in my picture of him: he never turned up at port offices looking for work. He never waited on a call in threadbare rooms or prefab huts that stank of stale cigarettes and droned to the Pentecostal babble of horse-racing on a portable TV. My grandfather knew only the grand old world of tall ships and scrimshaw. He could splice rope and had scrubbed decks in his youth. He had Polynesian tattoos under his shirt and wore his hair in a long braid. Despite his black market deals with Soviet sailors or Turkish bootleggers, he never breathed the diesel-laced air of a boiler room or dealt with an insurance agent.

In my Grandma’s parlour, under the kind gaze of pastel saints and between the cheesy grins of bygone pontiffs, my grandfather would hold back his laugh. I’d wonder where the old seafarer had fetched up. In time I even grew to envy him. Grandma’s was home to the ill and religious; her old stooped friends and my effeminate cousin, the curate, who played saccharine airs on the upright piano. I couldn’t help but compare the robust life of my grandfather with the anaemic world of my cousin. Where I imagined my grandfather, pipe clenched in his teeth, scanning the horizon for whales or signs of land, I saw my cousin praised for his sycophancy, ninny’s ways, and smarm. How I wished for that front door key to turn and that tough traveler to return and dispel the matronly aromas of rosewater and morning tea with his rough presence.

I had to wait until my Grandma’s death before I met him. She had taken ill and had become progressively worse over the years.  An oxygen system was introduced and a lift to convey her to the bedroom upstairs where she’d lie next to the sea-chest and pray her way to sleep each night. Doctors and priests came to visit, the former waning in influence as the latter waxed in theirs. My dainty cousin was more of a companion to her than her own shadow had ever been. She sickened, weakened, and died.

To her wake the whole neighbourhood poured through the doors of her two-up-two-down terraced house in the middle of the street. They filled the parlour and the kitchen with cheerful tea-drinking gangs. Upstairs, my mother and her brothers sat in the spare room chatting to visitors over tea and biscuits while in the next room, decked out in her Franciscan habit, Grandma lay on her bed, dead as stone, rosaries wrapped through her fingers, prayer cards glinting all around her in the light of many candles. The sea-chest was covered in wreaths. The candles burned, hymns played softly on a CD player, and my cousin in his new dog-collar held court.

As custom dictated, the wake lasted three days after which Grandma was laid in her coffin and the lid screwed shut. The service was well attended and the coffin carried to the graveyard by my uncles and older cousins where it was laid in the plot once occupied by A. Bell, when both Grandma and my grandfather sported in their prime.

The weeks passed and my uncle Gabriel inherited the house. It was his idea to return the souvenirs from the glass cabinet to their original owners. The icons and statues went back into the hands of those who’d bought them, as did the spoons and snow globes. The baptismal font was to go to my mother.

One afternoon she and I were visiting Gabriel. He went to the shop at the end of the street for milk. When he had gone my mother produced a key.

“It was sitting in the whiskey jug the whole time”. It was big. It was heavy, with a bow shaped like a pretzel, a shank like a nine-inch nail and a bit with wards that reminded me of an Aztec glyph. It was just how I’d imagined it.

“Come with me”.

I followed her up to Grandma’s old room. Statues still crowded the dressers and icons still sighed from their frames. The sea-chest gleamed in the pale light. Mother placed the key in the keyhole. It rattled and scraped.

It turned. The lock ground its teeth and snapped open. Mother lifted up the lid. She paused, holding the lid open. Her eyes were fixed on the contents of the chest.

I stooped and looked inside. A dusty, grey and mummified face returned my gaze. It wore an eye-patch. That’s all I remember before mother slammed the lid shut and turned the key in the lock.

O Typekey Divider

Paul McGranaghan was born in Derry and began growing up in Strabane, Northern Ireland. He attended grammar school in Omagh and then went to Manchester where he studied Zoology. He worked as a microbiologist near Aberystwyth, Wales, and as a Neuroscientist, again in Manchester. He has travelled throughout Ireland and Europe, living for a year in Italy and two years in Spain. He currently lives in Dublin, where he enjoys receiving gifts.

His first published work was the short thriller: McGranaghan P, Davies JC, Griffith GW, Davies DR, Theodorou MK (1999). The survival of anaerobic fungi in cattle faeces. FEMS Microbiol Lett 29: 293-300, followed by the peer-reviewed classic: McGranaghan, P.A., Piggins, H.D., 2001. Orexin-A-like immunoreactivity in the hypothalamus and thalamus of the Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) and Siberian hamster (Phodopus sungorus), with special reference to circadian structures. Brain Res. 904, 234–244.

Having escaped from the laboratory, he wrote ‘The Pamela Anderson’, which was published in the Sunday Tribune and selected for inclusion in The New Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction published by New Island. He accepted an invitation to promote this book on national radio, appearing on the Pat Kenney Show (no less).

His subsequent work showed a distinct focus on the natural world and he wrote a number of well-received pieces for the BBC culminating in his stories ‘The Noble Rot’, ‘Ashes’, and ‘Las Salinas’ being awarded prize-winning status in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Nature-Writer competitions of 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively. His short story ‘Bean Sídhe’ appeared in A Pint and a Haircut, an anthology of Irish stories published to raise funds for Concern Worldwide.

He hopes you are as well as can be expected, given the circumstances.

Paul McGranaghan

O Typekey Divider

–Foreground Art by Zak Milofsky
–Background Art by Sarah Hardy