Exiled

I Could Read The Sky, a lyrical collaboration between the writer Timothy O'Grady and photographer Steve Pyke, is the story of Irish emigration. In this extract, an Irishman uprooted by poverty is haunted by the land he left for the illusion of English we
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I open my eye. First there's the dryness. I can't get anything to move in my mouth for it's stuck. Then the pain. It's like there's a small animal with feet made of fire running inside my head. Then the feelings of poison and of shame. I look at the grey pillow, the coverlet, pink wearing away. It was a colour Maggie liked on some things. There'll be no comfort in the bed this morning.

I was, let me see, five hours in the Gloucester Arms yesterday evening. I went in at five and came out at ten. What else am I to do after I've walked the dog? I must have said something to the Greek over the game of dominoes for when he left he never spoke to me. I was out the door and down the road before I remembered I'd left the dog tied to a leg of the chair. I had nine pints and a cheese sandwich. Strange white cheese I never ate before. I can't take the drink the way I did.

On the first day I thought England was all grey walls running with water.

When the boat pulls into the harbour we put away our instruments and fold up the chairs. The big iron doors they left open to give us air draw closed, the grey water churning. The sky looks like pork gone off. The noise of the engine crashes through the hold. The lorries are dark and still as cows waiting for rain. There were six of us playing tunes like we were all raised under the same roof, and another 30 maybe watching. We go up onto the deck to have a look at England, the vile taste of the tea they gave us on the boat still with me. If you could see the brightness on their faces when the tunes were playing you could see nothing now. Just the look of waiting. The look of people waiting in a hospital.

We glide in silence through the docks. Rust. The walls pitted and streaked with green slime, water running down them. The lock gates open before us and then we rise up the walls. The lock is a pure marvel to me but I can't think why it's needed. We stop. The lock is like a tomb. A girl with black hair and a blue raincoat, face very pale, is gripping the rails. She has her suitcase between her legs. Her eyes are wide and she's pulling at the air. It's like she's drowning. The sound of it is all we can hear as we wait in the water. She doesn't seem to know what's happening to her. I want to go to her but I don't. Then when the boat rises again in the lock she seems to be all right.

We go out through the gate towards the dock. There's a newspaper, a child's doll in a pink dress and the tyre of a motor car in the water. The doll is missing an arm. We all walk out onto the dock with our suitcases. If anyone's thinking twice about where they're going they're letting on nothing. I look around without any reason to see is anyone here to meet me. The wind is blowing hard and it surprises me. I always thought it would be dead calm. I think of a wind at home that had such force it lifted a cat and threw it over a wall. Everyone scatters, but a young lad named John Joe who played the mouth organ goes with me to the train. A long tunnel, the dark walls sweating an oily kind of water. Then the high cuttings as we pass out of the city. Black bricks, moss and streaks of water. I am in England now.

I roll over onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie's dress with the bluebells hanging there. It's the only thing I won't give away. What had I with me when I stepped out onto the docks? A suitcase of clothes. The accordion. The note Da gave me to tell me where to go. pounds 4 6s. I'd saved and Ma's pounds 2, that was pounds 6 6s. What have I now? I look for my trousers. They're in a heap on the floor where I walked out of them last night. I'll have to put some order into the place. pounds 1.27 in the pocket. And the pension won't arrive until Thursday. What will I do today? I'll lie in bed thinking of the grey walls of Liverpool running with water.

The day I left Da went out very early with the sick calf and wouldn't come near the house. Ma fries me two lovely eggs she brought in that morning. She gives me a rosary and sandwiches. She goes to the press, takes out a box and hands me pounds 2. It's a fine little box made of pine that was full of cigars when Martin sent it to Da from New York. That winter when the men came visiting at night they lay on their backs on the stone floor with their feet to the fire and smoked cigars instead of pipes.

I ate the last of the sandwiches waiting to get on the boat at the North Wall. I kept the pounds 2 until I forgot which ones they were. I put the rosary into the coffin with Ma.

I go to the door and look for Da. He has a sheep up on his back and he's walking away from the house past the well. He tips his hat to Baby just like Matt as she labours up a small hill with her pram. "It's well for her she's in Labasheeda," he'd say, "for the city would crush her." I hope he won't fall under the weight of the sheep. Ma goes to put the sandwiches in my suitcase but the lock snaps open and my clothes spill out onto the floor. She runs a length of twine around it. Dermot brings the cart and we head out the road. The sun pours through a gap in the clouds and lights up the townland. All the colours of Ma's shawl as she rests against the white wall. Her hair red and going to white some places, her fingers red too from work. The fuchsia and the new thatch, the emerald fields ringed in grey. The clouds close over as we head out. A photograph.

I stand up in the cart and look for Da but I can't find him. He'll be behind a hedge maybe, watching. What did I do along this road? I drove cattle. I hid from the Master. I danced a hornpipe. I waited for Da to come home from Lincolnshire. One day I'll come back along it in a new suit filled with banknotes.

Dermot leaves me down at the station like I was a sack of grain and turns the horse away. I watch after him but he doesn't look back. He takes his cap off and makes a swat at a bluebottle and I see a circle of bare skin the size of a florin at the back of his head. That's the first I ever saw of it. I fear for my own hair then. I run my hand through it but it feels all right. Would I find a fine-looking woman in the dance halls of England before the hair lets me down?

Cornelius Breen is on the platform with his Ma and Da and sister Agnes. His Ma gets 30 dollars every month from his brother Paul in Philadelphia and maybe six pounds from Declan who's working on roads in England. She's a coat with fur around the collar she had sent up from Dublin. They widened the house to make a parlour and they have the priest in for tea. She's been running a campaign this past year with Cornelius to get him out from beside the fire and into the world making money but he wasn't having any of it. Matt calls him the Potato That Was Boiled Too Long, for he's soft. His Ma bought him a suitcase. Then she bought him a suit. Good investments, she thought, but still he wouldn't shift. Finally she said she'd give him 12 pounds and the price of his ticket along with it and he agreed. The Da's there with his cap off and a sorrowful look on him like he's at the side of a grave. I can see the smoke from the train. I look over to the bench where I sat with Kate Creevy. Cornelius's Ma starts to cry. "Don't leave me, son," she says, reaching out her arms. I suppose she thought she had to. The train is upon us now. "Don't leave me, Cornelius," she says again. "All right, Ma," says Cornelius, "I won't refuse you," and he walks back to the cart, throws his suitcase into it and sits down. Ma told me in a letter that he was three days in the town drinking away all the money she gave him.

The click of the wheels on the tracks. It sounds different in England. Heavier maybe. Warrington. Manchester. Stockport. Rows of tiny houses joined up together. Sheds out the back with bicycles and mattresses and trunks up on the roof. John Joe's talking to me the whole way about the tunes of Leitrim and the uncle that could play them all on his fiddle. I can see a woman frying fish in a pan. Her hair looks like it's made of wood. The great rush on them all when they get to the stations. What will they sound like? What way will I talk to them?

I take out the bit of paper Da gave me. "The Duke of Cumberland, Lincoln", it says. It's wearing away from all the times I've looked at it since leaving home. I fold it again and put it away into my pocket. What would Da be doing now? Maybe looking out over the land, the sun lighting up his face. The pale girl with the black hair who was unwell on the boat is by the window across from John Joe and me, looking poorly again. She has a handkerchief up to her lips. I see on the floor under her seat a little pool, mostly tea, where she's been sick. She hasn't anyone with her. A huge tall man in a railway uniform comes into the carriage. He's a red beard, a nose like a baby tomato, and eyes as red as the inside of a mouth. The hat is sitting back on his head so you can see the whole of his face. He pulls up when he sees the sick on the floor. He looks right, and then left. He looks straight at the girl. "Who made this mess?" he says. His voice booms and rattles. The whole carriage is silent and watching. The girl is shaking now. She lifts her hand up to her mouth like she'll be sick again. But he keeps his stare on her. Then John Joe throws his coat over the back of the seat and pushes the sleeves of his gansey as high as they'll go. Christ, the arms on him! They'd collapse a bull. "I did," says John Joe. Your man wheels around. John Joe looks right into his eye, the arms across his chest like two logs. I look into his eye too but then turn away for it's like looking at rancid meat. Everything is moving in John Joe's jaw and neck and arms. His right leg is going up and down like he's marking time to a reel. He's looking right at your man and smiling. One brush of a feather and he'd go off like a land mine. It's like the air is made of glass, John Joe and your man eye to eye. "Don't do it again," says the railwayman and moves off down the carriage, beat. The door slams behind him. John Joe winks at the girl. She laughs, high and light. She laughs in a way that I think she didn't expect.

I was with John Joe until Chester, and then I got onto another train to Sheffield. The names I never took to. There isn't much movement in them and they are closed off at both ends. They remind me of iron. John Joe hadn't a clue where he was going and neither did I. "Where'd you get arms like that?" I said to him before I got off. "I'm a plasterer," he said. "You get them from holding the hawk."

Inside the Duke of Cumberland, sitting at a high stool at the bar; a cigarette burning away in his hand and a pint and the paper from home before him, is PJ Doran, Matt's nephew. His hair is slicked down with oil. Christy Mangan, Dick Lally, Conor Dowd and his brother Peter, Jimmy Burke and Dan Ryan are all in a gloomy corner playing cards. The last time I saw Dan he was coming up from the quay with two lobster pots and the wind nearly blowing him back into the sea. A Kerryman name of Florrie Clifford I recognised from a photo Da showed me is making his way to the bar. I'd been two hours in the streets of Lincoln looking for the place. I was afraid to speak in case I'd be jeered at. The handle of the case nearly opened a wound in my hand. I all but fall on them when I see them.

It is here that I mix up the money Ma gave me. They fire pints at me but there is no food. They're pints of bitter topped with brown ale. I play them "The Good Natured Man", "The Whistler from Rosslea" and "The Humours of Tulla". The money drains from my pocket. When I come out of the Gents I trip over the step at the door and open a gash on the bridge of my nose. I look at myself in the mirror until I stop the blood. There's a reel in my head. I have to keep a grip on the basin. I have trouble believing it's myself looking back at me.

Then I am in a car. An Englishman I've never seen before is driving. The men are breathing like cows from all the drink. They tell me there's an old lad from Tyrone who is too weak to pick potatoes any more so they'll put him up on the tractor and I can take his place in the gang. I know nothing of what is to happen to me but I ask no questions. We drive in the darkness out of the city and along the lanes of the countryside of Lincolnshire, houses and hedges and trees thrown behind us with our speed, the sky growling like a dog watching something he doesn't like. PJ whistles "James Connolly". We get out then and I follow them up a muddy path towards a dark shape. Peter Dowd slips and slides down the slope on the arse of his trousers. How was it I was so incurious about what was to become of me? The drink maybe. More likely the fear of being shamed somehow.

We come then to a door in a building made of stone. The door is black, the paint flaking, and is held closed by twine stretched between two nails. We are at some kind of an outbuilding on a farm. I am feeling cold while we wait for PJ to unwind the twine and let us in. The door opens and we file in silently. Where are we going? Inside there is heat and movement and the air thickened with some kind of life. PJ lights a lantern hanging from a nail in the wall. Stretched in front of me now I see pigs. The room is filled with pigs from one end to the other. The men move towards a length of wooden stair that reaches from the dust of the floor to a hole in the ceiling. The pigs watch us as we make our ascent.

Above in the loft there are twelve sleeping places made of straw along the two walls, with a wash-basin on a stand below a tiny window at the gable end. PJ hangs the lantern on a nail and points to where I should sleep. The men are making ready for bed, but I stand still at the top of the stairs. I can taste the brine of tears coming into my mouth. My breath is short and the blood seems to be moving at such speed within me that I think I might be thrown to the floor. But I let on nothing. The pigs are moving below. I am standing above them taking in their breath. I feel in my pockets. I wonder have I the fare home and if I can find the way. I think of the bed I left in Labasheeda. Outside it is dark and the road full of twists I know nothing of. There is no way back now. I am to pick potatoes and lie down at night in this loft. I am to be in England living with pigs

`I Could Read the Sky', by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke, will be published on 18 Sept (Harvill), pounds 14.99, and pounds 30 in large-format hardback. Exhibitions of the photographs will be held at: The Gallery of Photography, Temple Bar, Dublin 18-30 Sept (671 4654); Cheltenham Festival of Literature, Town Hall, Cheltenham, 1-18 Oct (01242 521621) and Zelda Cheatle Gallery, London, Oct-Nov (0171-836 0506)

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