It was my last day. I couldn't say when I might return and the last few hours in the place where my family had lived became sharply precious. I had been filming over the past week, the ruin of the old house, the graves of my ancestors, the special places around and about.
Just now I was kneeling on the crumbling floor of the old house. It felt gritty beneath me, though I had brushed the floor clean. I was trying to reach what looked like a tin box, thrust behind the rotting spinet. It was possibly the last unexplored item in a house which had been picked clean by the family magpies. They had taken their treasures with them, and now I was desperate to find one of my own. Something to help me connect with the family I was descended from, but knew so little of.
The tin was just out of reach of my hand. I took off one of my shoes and thrust it as far as I could. The body of the spinet was made of iron, and it was impossible to move. Teasing the box out was the only way to retrieve it. My shoe slid off the dusty lid.
Damn. I withdrew my arm and turned the shoe heel first. I stretched as far as I could, my shoulder against the cobweb-covered side of the instrument. I heard a shiver of sound. I must have shifted the heavy spinet sufficiently to send a vibration through the remaining notes. I exhaled and my hand stretched a little further. I felt the heel of my shoe connect with the box. This time it didn't slide off the lid. I felt the box move. I raised my hand and brought the heel of my shoe down afresh. It moved again. Encouraged, I pushed more strongly. There was that shimmer of notes again, like a voice from the past encouraging me. The box moved again, and yet again. I pulled back and looked along the wall. Yes, it was coming towards me. Two more goes and I had it firmly hooked. It slid along the dust, and finally it was out.
I blew the cobwebs off my shoe before replacing it on my foot, then lifted the rusty tin and took it towards the window. What treasure had I found? I opened it gingerly, carefully. What might once have been a bundle of letters had sunk to the bottom, and the paper had turned to dust. It broke into millions of fragments as I touched it. As the paper dust settled, I saw what looked like a photograph, or part of one. I fished it carefully out. It was just a fragment. I blew the film of dust away. The lower edge was rippled and torn and I saw that the photograph had been laid like a film over a backing of thick paper. An elbow rested on the arm of a chair. There was part of a hand, a man's cap, a bit of cheek, and most of one eye. I turned it into the light, peered at it, tried to dust off the age marks, and puzzled about who it was. There was no writing on the back. I went back to the tin, but the pattern had faded completely and it gave no clue to its age. Who was the man?
I felt like weeping. I had come to learn something about my ancestors and all I had to show for my efforts were the carvings on a headstone, and now, a bit of a man who might or might not have been an ancestor. And yet, there was something about that eye. But was my longing to know who it was colouring reality?
I laid the scrap of photo in the stones of the frameless window, and retrieved my camera. I filmed it and the place where I had found the tin. I filmed the crumbling walls of the abandoned house, then wandered out into the yard, turning left by one of the sheds in time to see a bird fly through the gap above the door. Turning left again brought me onto the street of the old house. That was what they called the stretch of ground in front of a house in days gone by. Back then, it would have been clear and well kept, ready always to receive horses and carts, and later, the cars that brought the family or visitors to the house. Now it is overgrown. The street has vanished along with those who once trod upon it.
Out on the road, I saw the wild beauty of the hedges, heard the musical chatter of other happy birds, the low hum of tractors driving in nearby fields. The sounds were cheering. I decided to make the best of the day, and capture new memories to take away with me.
I drove into the town, filmed old-fashioned shopfronts, the self-conscious smiles of people passing, and best of all, the sea. I sat on the sea-front wall, filming the spread of people scattered the length of long beach, and the wild sea in the distance, drawing my attention as waves hitting rocks rose up like monstrous standing beasts only to crash quickly down in defeated swirls of foaming fury.
The sea excited me, in its action and re-action. I drove up a tight winding lane to film it from above, to catch it thunder dramatically against the cliffs below.
And so the day passed, ordinary and thrilling all at once. I had captured lots to remind me of my visit.
I returned to the old house to say a last farewell as the day was ending, content with all I had done, all I had seen. Leaning into the car to draw out my camera, I felt a flutter touch my ear: a sound, a sensation, a whisper barely heard, the touch of fingertips, the fading tail of a disappearing dream. I stood and turned towards the lawn beyond the ruin of the house, scanning the stillness. No one was there. I placed the camera on the gate pillar, and sat next to it on the wall that separated the house from the lawn. I let my eyes wander lazily around the view in front of me, the long stretch of grass curling back behind the house, the tall cypresses providing a boundary, placed with gaps to draw the eye beyond to fields and the distant sea. The quiet of early evening seduced me, those moments of inactivity when the work or play of the day has ended, when children are having a bath or changing for bed, when fields have been left tidied until the morrow, when everyone has gone indoors for a minute, or two, or ten, and it seems like the land and the sky heave a long lingering sigh, relishing the last moment of day before ushering in the start of night. In August, that moment lasts and lasts, and there I was, caught in it; catching it.
As I watched through the moment when time stands still, I saw the air on the lawn shivering, shaking, as though it was a sheet of thinnest colourless silk. Then it parted, as curtains on a stage, and the past appeared before me.
There, sitting either side of a small table, were my grandmother and her sister, Ellen. They were little more than twenty or twenty-two years old. I had seen pictures of them as young girls, but the flatness of a photograph can only give a hint of the person it tries to capture. Here they were, living, breathing, beautiful origins of the grandmother and great-aunt I'd known as a child.
I drew the camera slowly and carefully to me, fearful of making a sound that might chase away the scene before me. Excitement leapt inside me. I reined it in and directed it through the lens. All I remembered of Granny and great-aunt Ellie were wrinkled faces, shrunken eyes, and voices from which beauty had fled. I focussed the lens, reducing the gap between us, framed their lovely heads and shoulders, then closed in on my grandmother's face.
Her skin was perfect, her cheeks, lips, chin and nose bursting with the beauty of youth, and her own loveliness which I saw now for the first time. Blue eyes, large and wide, watching the world, letting it in; dark hair, cropped in the style of the 1920s, with curls carefully placed on her smooth forehead, following the curve of her chin, and bunching at the top of her long pale neck; a beaded band was wound around her head, in which a feather was placed. She sat motionless in the silence, contained, at ease.
Beside her was great-aunt Ellie. This young woman had big blue laughing eyes, a shade or two darker than my grandmother's. Her deep brown hair fell straight and silky to her shoulders. She too wore a band and feather. Her skin was a soft olive in contrast to Granny's which was fair as alabaster. Her nose was perfect, her lips stretched with a tiny smile. What was it that was making her smile?
'Are ye ready for to go?' asked a voice behind me, and the camera shook in my hands with the sudden and unexpected entrance of a third person. She walked into the frame, and I re-focussed to include her. She was facing away from me. I noticed hair that was tangled and badly tied up, strings of an apron falling over a rough skirt, and boots rather than shoes upon her feet.
I eased off the wall and drew back nearer the house, so that I could capture the contrast of Granny and great-aunt Ellie sitting beyond this ill-clad creature. I saw they were dressed quite finely. Granny wore a gown of peach-coloured lace. Plain sections of the lace fell as sleeves to her elbows. The bodice was ornate and loose, and a wide band of satin ribbon separated the skirt from the flowing top. She wore silk stockings and ivory-coloured shoes. Great-aunt Ellie was dressed more colourfully, in a short-sleeved turquoise frock. Lines of beads fell from below the waist. The hem of her dress was shorter than Granny's.
They turned their heads slowly and lazily to look at the newcomer, but neither said a thing. The woman shuffled her feet a bit, and one of her hands slid behind her back where she drew it into a fist.
'Isn't Mr James O'Shea coming for to take ye to the dance, and didn't your mother say that you were to be nice to him?'
My grandmother lifted her head.
'What is Mr O'Shea to me, Bridget?' she asked.
I remembered that voice, but now it was light and sweet. It tickled my ears.
'Hasn't he been seen gazing at you during Mass,' answered Bridget, 'and as you walk around in town, and doesn't your mother want you to be marrying him?'
'Which is not to say that I want to,' replied my grandmother, and a streak of stubbornness sped across her face as she adjusted herself in the chair, and looked away towards the distant sea.
Great-aunt Ellie giggled.
'It's not funny, Ellie,' said Granny, looking crossly at her sister. 'What if it was you she was planning to marry off.'
'I'd wait to see the man before deciding I disliked him.'
'Did you hear that now?' asked Bridget, and I thought she was referring to what had been said until I caught the sound of horses hooves clopping behind me. 'I'd better be letting him in.'
She turned and ran, and so fast did she go that I missed seeing the front of her.
Granny began stroking the skirt of her dress with rapid movements of her hand that sent imaginary dust or fluff flying. Great-aunt Ellie, still smiling, looked away to the trees.
I never heard him approach. He appeared in a corner of the frame, and walked slowly round to stand before the sisters, far enough from the table to allow him room to bow.
'Miss Grogan,' he said, bending firstly to my grandmother, then to her sister. 'Miss Ellen.'
He stood with his back to the slowly sinking sun, and it spread a soft glow behind him. He wore a suit that was crisp and well cut, and it hung pleasingly on him. He stood easily, peacefully, politely. I strained to see his eyes as I watched my grandmother raise her face. That sulky stubborn frown had gone. She looked at James O'Shea.
Was it the sun that made her cheeks glow pinkly?
She dropped her eyes, but I noticed they fell slowly, taking in all of his physique as they fell, his shoulders which were broad but not too broad, the tapering lines of his jacket as it slimmed towards his waist, then swelled slightly where it covered his hips, ending at the top of his legs.
'Mr O'Shea,' she said, and her voice was soft as silk.
He bowed again, raising his head leisurely, up the length of her lower limbs, over the thin material which covered her thighs, lingering almost imperceptibly at the swell of her breasts, remembering his manners as he reached her neck, straightening quickly and standing further back.
'I've come in the jaunting car,' he said, 'it being such a fine evening. The seats are sparkling and it will be a lovely drive into Kilrush.'
My grandmother stood up, smiling.
'Bridget has our shawls ready.'
'I'll take them from her,' said James O'Shea, 'and place them on the car. Shall I see you out front in the street.'
'Yes,' said Granny.
He walked away, and their eyes followed him. When he had disappeared around the edge of the house, great-aunt Ellie giggled.
'Does he have a brother,' she asked. My grandmother began to laugh. They linked arms and followed Mr O'Shea to the jaunting car. I heard a welcoming neigh from the horse.
The air shimmered again and the scene shook as the curtains of time fell.
I lowered the camera, pulled the fragment of photograph from my pocket and examined the eye. Was it him? Had I captured the scene? Would I take away a piece of magic with me?