The River Liffey describes a bowed shape through the centre of Dublin city – almost a straight line but not quite. Dark water divides the north of the city from the south as it widens towards the port and the Irish Sea.
None of the bridges that span it – Sean Heuston, Rory O’More, James Joyce, Father Matthew, Samuel Beckett – can dilute the divisive power of the thing. For many generations now the blue collar inhabitants of the northside have considered their Dublin a different place to the leafy, Georgian southside. The city is founded on the river, and cursed by it.
They pulled a body out of the water this week that used to belong to a friend of mine. I have been crying with K, who loved him too. We are far away. We are no help, no comfort to his family. We cannot squeeze more tears from our mutual friends. We are no help.
We sit and squeeze each other, and the tears come.
The heart is a busy organ – and very serious – when bereaved. Remembering is difficult work; our emotional mechanisms shift up a gear and we bend inward with the strain – replaying the scenes, mouthing the words, laughing the laughs. It’s exhausting. We are partially absent to the people around us as we labour to make our loved one present, and to preserve his presence.
J, on the other hand, was anything but serious. To be with him was to be laughing, frequently to the point of tears. He didn’t do misery, never really seemed to sulk. He couldn’t abide bullies or aggression. He was never snide, never bitter, and always seemed to me to be incredibly principled in his dealings with people. You’d almost have wanted him to be just that little bit less principled at times; a scene or two might have been avoided.
But a quiet life wasn’t for J. He did a lot of his living at night – drawn to the noise and distraction of the club, the pub, the festival. He wanted to be where people had to shout to be heard, dancing in the din. It was his safe place. If you ever found yourself having a nice cup of tea with him mid-morning it was probably just because you hadn’t been to bed, and it was more likely a can of beer.
There were quieter times but he didn’t seem to like them much. J was high-octane; he fed off people, he had fun around them and they had more fun when he was around. Humour was a constant. It was his best weapon, perhaps, against the fear we all know in our darker moments. Because he loved people, he met a lot of them; as I write, I am merely one of a great crowd of mourners. A mob of those who loved him.
His demons were not mine but we both had them, and we were able to talk once in a while. To say something that meant something, once in a while. I felt that he could see me, and that I could see him. He laughed at my jokes and I won’t lie to you – I think that’s a great quality in a person. There are certain jokes I think of to this day that are just for J. They require eye-contact with him to be truly funny. They will hurt now, whenever they come to mind.
And that’s an almost daily occurrence. For all the time that has elapsed since I last saw him, between pints is where I always assumed we were. The sour grapes I had been feeling towards him for not keeping in touch more seem ridiculous now, shrivelled up on a silly vine. The keeping in touch was necessary because myself and K had moved away, but although we have felt a little isolated out here from time to time we have never really felt alone.
Whenever we’ve seen something wonderful over here or done something fun, been somewhere beautiful, we’ve enjoyed it twice. Once for ourselves and once for our “audience” – for the people we’d want to share it with, to get over here and show it to. A lot of that has been about J. We wanted to make him welcome here, as he used to be in Smithfield and Leixlip.
I may not have the spiritual capacity to look forward to that next pint “on the other side”. J did though. I hope he’s right about this one. I know he’d appreciate the remark about doing things for an audience because he adored showmanship, and it turns out was a consummate showman himself – leaving us all, as he has done, wanting more.
A curse on the river that has divided him from us. A curse on any suffering or fear that got into him. A curse on the past tense, and a curse on my complacency – that I didn’t enjoy that last drink more, savour it more. That I didn’t say anything that meant anything.
A blessing on him, from one who is blessed to have known him.