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Joe O'Donnell
Helen Bar-Lev
Bernard Mann
David Collett
Donna Langevin
Geoffrey Heptonstall
John Grabski
Katherine Burkman
Lilian Cohen
Lisa Okon
Mike Leaf
Joe O'Donnell


Joe O’Donnell has survived a lifetime spent in motley: as an actor, professional magician, folk singer, TV director and producer, and a writer for stage, radio, TV and various magazines. His radio plays and short stories have won international awards, and his TV writing has included plays, documentaries and soap operas, many of which he also directed. He created the popular children’s TV series BOSCO and he still entertains his grandchildren with magic. He is married to Tina who even after 42 years of marriage still puts up with his eccentricities. He considers himself a very lucky man.

The following work is copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.

 

Epicedium

I need to get my head clear on some things. Important things. Like the painting, for instance. It’s about a metre long and maybe 30 centimetres high. When we bought it three years ago it showed a bleak landscape, a western landscape, possibly an estuary, with a few cattle grazing disconsolately. There is a narrow road which meanders off to the horizon, and on a distant hill an abandoned broken down cottage.

It is a water-colour primarily in grays and browns, and has a misty insubstantial air. Sounds a bit depressing, yet it isn’t. It is more a mysterious landscape, a Connemara of the mind rather than any realistic representation.

One of the things that spoiled it for me was a report I read once where in a remote part of Connemara, a boarded up Famine cottage was opened. Inside it was the body of an elderly woman. The inner side of the door was scratched bloody with her fingernails as she tried to claw her way get out. It appears that her two sons had emigrated to the United States, leaving their elderly mother in the boarded-up cottage. I’ve always associated that story with the boarded-up cottage in the painting.

It is the work of a young Irish Artist, and cost us five hundred euro some three years ago: five hundred euro which we could barely afford at the time. It was at a gallery opening in Cabinteely, and we both had a little too much of the free wine to drink. We threw caution to the winds, and bought this. We thought it quite beautiful. Then. Now? Well, things have changed.

I threw caution to the winds: Caitríona was eighteen years old, whippet thin, with lips like bee stings and the most perfect toes ever seen on a human being. She was diamond bright, funny and she fell for me with the same inconsequence as Alice fell down the rabbit hole. She was also my wife’s younger sister.

Then there was the business of the magpies. That’s what started it all. Early on a Sunday morning I woke to the most appalling racket. Magpies, the chattering classes of our neighbourhood were setting up a fearsome racket. I rose and pulled back the curtain. Down on the road, some fourteen magpies–I counted them–surrounded a pair of brawling magpies. Not so much brawling as one, a younger magpie was engaged in the systematic killing of another. The older bird would endeavour to flop away, but the younger one went in over and over, viciously pecking at this tumbling, flopping ball of black and white feathers.

I raced down, and like a lunatic, dressing gown flapping in the wind I screamed down the drive waving my arms. They dispersed. The victim was dead, his eyes all but out of his head. I toed him into the gutter with the toe of my slipper. Mimi was waiting for me at the door.

“What on earth do you think you’re up to?” she said.

I told her. “Don’t interfere,” she said, “you mustn’t interfere with the natural process.”

That’s what she said. I remember it distinctly as I stood shivering in the hall. Don’t interfere with the natural process. But then Mimi would say that. That’s what you would expect from somebody who earns a fair old living as a psychic. What with her earth magic, her tarot readings, her rune stones and her numerology, that’s exactly what you would expect. Don’t interfere with the natural process.

The magpies were back the following morning. This time there were twenty of them. All in a circle: some on the tree, some on the road, some on the small wall of the front garden. All squawking and croaking in a frenzy, as the young bird from the previous day hauled the corpse of the dead magpie from the gutter and ballyragged it; there is no other word for it, ballyragged it around the road. That was the morning before the dinner party.

It was Mimi’s idea–a dinner party to celebrate the summer solstice. She had invited Glen and Clarissa, a pair of ageing actors whom we have known for some time, both were currently resting; Jack and Millicent–he runs a gardening centre and gives advice on the radio, and she, like Mimi, is very much into matters of the spirit. No doubt she would announce sometime earlier on, that she had brought her angels or her spirit guides along with her, and did we mind? I often felt like telling her angels to sod off home, they hadn’t been invited, but lacked the bottle. Mimi also invited her sister Caitríona and Dessie who is something in computers, and has a dreadful laugh.

“I thought Caitríona’s was looking a bit peaky lately,” Mimi said, “could do with a bit of a jolly up.” She looked straight into my eyes when she said this. I held her gaze. She does this, Mimi; it’s a professional thing. She focuses on the spot between the eyebrows, and this has the disconcerting effect of making you feel as though she is looking deep into your soul. Knocks her shut-eye customers for six. Doesn’t fool me though. I held her gaze. Of course by that time, I had suspected that Mimi knew about us, about Caitríona and me. How did she know? I’ve no idea. But then she’s supposed to be psychic: that’s her job after all.

The Caitríona thing just happened, if anything, that is, can be said to ‘just happen.’ One day, evening rather, she was the younger sister of my wife. The next she was a clawing biting, insatiable woman who left me drained and dizzy. If I could summon up a single image of Caitríona–and that’s not difficult, I could summon up dozens–it would be of socks. Small, yellow socks, with a tiny blue cartoon dolphin appliquéd to the ankle of either foot.

I fell in love with her straight away. When I discovered that those tiny yellow socks covered the most exquisite of feet, with their perfect toes, and perfect nails, painted a deep blue, love quickly turned to lust.

Now Mimi knew. I just knew she knew. She’s not a woman for scenes. I reckoned that she was going to take Caitríona aside during or after or before the dinner and mark her cards, set her straight, tell her to back off. The guests arrived. Jack and Millicent were first. Jack was professional to his fingertips, the smiling efficient down-to-earth presenter of one of TV’s most popular gardening shows. He always had spicy stories of the stars of the small screen. Millicent, big bumbling Millicent in a dress like a marquee, loads of jangling jewellery and an embroidered headband with a rock crystal around her forehead. ‘It’s a bloodstone,” she said. “Honours my Third Eye Chakra,” she explained.

I said “ah.” There wasn’t an awful lot more to say. And thankfully there was no sign of the angels. Others guests arrived. Oscar and Deirdre–she’s a soprano, he’s an ex-army captain and a dreadful bore. Glen and Clarissa, the resting actors, were bitching other actors, the National Theatre, RTE, TV3, TV4 and just about everything else in sight. That’s not their real names of course. Glen and Clarissa are their stage names on the odd times they get to use them of course. I have long since erased from my memory their real names. It was becoming too confusing remembering them, and having to introduce them.

I told my story of the magpies to Jack. He muttered something about ritual waking which I told him was a load of balderdash. They weren’t waking the bird; they were bloody killing it. Then I saw Caitríona had arrived. With Dessie. She was talking to Millicent who was pointing to her Third Eye Chakra. I focused on Caitriona’s Ass Chakra. Oh dear God. Mimi broke my reverie.

“Will you top people up,” she said. Oscar and Dessie were standing in front of the picture. They were giving artistic opinions on it. Oscar thought it was impressionistic but possibly cubist inspired. “Something on the lines of Picasso meets Manet?” I said. He smiled blankly. I proffered a bottle. “More wine?”


Dessie said that it made him uneasy. “It’s a decent tipple,” I said, “ Rioja. A big ride of a wine. Could I get you something else?” “No,” Dessie said,” the painting. That makes me uneasy. There’s something. I don’t know. It makes me feel….” “Uneasy?” I suggested. “That’s it,” he said. “Have more wine,” I said,” and turn your back on it. It won’t be offended. Neither will I.”

I knew what he meant. ‘Though it‘s not a narrative painting, I knew the appalling history of the abandoned cottage on the hill and I just knew. Okay?

The meal went very well. Mimi, not the planet’s greatest cook had produced some splendid nosh on this occasion. Deep fried aubergine with a yoghurt and coriander dip, chicken breasts stuffed with spinach and ricotta, amazing little jewels of slowly cooked passion fruit, and some berries in a spun toffee basket. How she did it I will never know. Maybe she put one of her spells on it. But there was applause all around. And more wine. Then brandies, and a variety of liqueurs–Quarenta Y Tres, Myrto from Sardinia, and that deeply aromatic pick-me-up, reeking of evil, Strega.

“It means witch you know,” said Oscar to no one in particular.

“What does?” I said.

“Strega,” he said. “It’s Italian for witch.” He twirled the malevolent looking liquid in the tiny glass.

“Thank you for sharing that with us, Oscar,” I said. He’d know, of course, being into Italian and opera and stuff. And being a bore.

I cannot remember who suggested holding the séance. I know Jack had been going on and on about Victorian drawing room ballads, and poetry like The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God. I think I just managed to stall Glen who was about to give us a full rendition. Then Millicent and Mimi were talking about Victorian spiritualism and Daniel Dunglas Home and levitation. Was it Mimi? Possibly. ‘Though I confess that Caitriona’s foot inserted firmly in my crotch under the table, and her too too innocent expression as she wriggled her toes had befuddled my attention somewhat.

We cleared the table, and sat around in the darkened room. Somebody lit some incense. We held hands. Caitríona was on my right hand side and Millicent on my left. Mimi did the honours as medium. It was low key and giggly for a while, until people settled down. Nothing much happened, but I knew if Mimi had suggested it then Mimi would have some worthwhile tricks up her capacious sleeves.

And sure enough: there were knocks on the table. Then there were cobwebby cold things teasing our faces. A small blob of something luminous floated a moment over the table and then was gone. We got the voice of somebody purporting to be Dunglas Home warning us against sins of the flesh. Nudge nudge wink wink. Fair play to you Mimi, I get the message.

Then, and this really set the hair crawling up the back of my neck, a high cool soprano voice, of an almost unbearable poignancy started to sing. I don’t know where the voice came from. The song was familiar.

“If those lips could only speak and those eyes could only see,
If those beautiful golden tresses were there in reality.
Could I only take your hand as I did when you took my name,
But she’s only a beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame...”


There was silence. Silence so profound it was eerie. I could feel tears in my eyes.

Then Caitríona screamed. A thin eerie scream, which seemed to spiral upwards and then, tailed off. Her hand was no longer there. I leaped up. Somebody-was it Dessie?-put on the lights. The circle was complete except for Caitríona.

There was no sign of her. Mimi shook herself. “That’s it, folks,” she said. “I’m feeling a bit weak.”

“But Caitríona…?” I said.

“Probably gone to the bathroom.” said Millicent. “I’ll go check.” As people rose, and busied themselves getting drinks, Mimi said to me. “Will you put on more coffee?” I nodded and turned. Then I saw it. On the seat of Caitriona’s chair: a small yellow sock. I touched it. I could feel the hard edge of the appliqué work. I rolled it up and stuffed it into my pocket.

Caitríona wasn’t in the house. And I haven’t seen her since. Her bed is unused, her flat is empty. Dessie said she might be in Australia. She had talked from time to time of taking a year off to go backpacking. I knew about that; we were to go together. But now I don’t think so.

When the other guests had departed and we were clearing up the empty glasses and emptying the ashtrays I showed Mimi the sock. She laughed. “So that’s where it got to,” she said. “I found it when I was making our bed the other day.” Again she looked straight at me. “Wonder where it came from?”

That was when the picture caught my eye. It looked different. It was different. It now had a small human figure on that road. The figure, a woman, was looking over her shoulder.

“That wasn’t there before,” I said. Mimi was emptying a small glass dish of crisps. “What?” she said. “What wasn’t where before?”

“The human figure in the painting.” She came closer and stared for a moment.

“That’s always been there,” she said. “You just didn’t see it before.” She stood in front of me with her arms outstretched, left hand holding a bowl of crisps, right Bombay mix.

“You did this,” I said. “This is one of your séance tricks, isn’t it?”

“I think you’ve had a little too much to drink, my love. You go on up. I’ll finish tidying up.” She kissed me on the cheek.

The next morning the damn magpies were there again. Only this time they were soundless, wordless, motionless. They stood in silent mourning around the few black and white feathers that were left. Mimi watched me from the bed.

“You know,” she said, “ I can’t get that damn song out of my mind.” She started to hum the song.

I knew there was a magnifying glass somewhere in the bureau. I pulled out drawer after drawer, spilling their contents onto the floor. Finally I found it.

The magnifying glass showed up much more of the tiny figure in the picture. The face was undoubtedly Caitriona’s. She was looking over her shoulder, a look of horror and desolation on her face. Just at the ankle of her left foot I could spot a tiny blaze of yellow with a speck of blue. The other ankle was bare. I could hear the song from the kitchen.

“If those lips could only speak and those eyes could only see,
If those beautiful golden tresses were there in reality.
Could I only take your hand as I did when you took my name,
But she’s only a beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame...”