Friday, 22 November 2013

Hopeland (Notes from Corsica): 19: An Unsteady Hand

19: An Unsteady Hand

Mike Tehan’s funeral was unforgettable. The Catholic church of St Felix was full; people stood in the aisles and outside in the car park. The wake that followed at the Felixstowe Ferry Sailing Club was a lively celebration of a quiet life. The club house sat at the ‘entrance’ of the river Debnen and offered stunning views both of the sea and upriver. It had been a haven to Mike and was the perfect setting for his send off: a place of function and easy laughter, with ‘Adnams’ on tap, heaven indeed.
Mike’s qualities were modest and intangible but I think that ultimately he reflected what most of us would want to call the best of ourselves. His serenity was a constant and, because of that, he was the perfect touchstone. For me, as a kid, Mike was the one I’d look to when things got a bit wobbly, or when I just couldn’t get trigonometry. He was the funnel, the conduit that brought everyone together at St Felix’s that day. I think that all of his friends present were all a little stunned at the turn out; each of us thinking that we were singularly blessed in recognizing his quiet decency, yet all of us happy to sublimate ourselves as one of many; Mike’s family of friends.

After Mike’s passing an odd thing happened; I started writing about myself in the 3rd person. It seemed that I was outside myself, watching me waiting for something to happen, a dispassionate outsider viewing my fumblings from a distance.
There was a strange and quiet calm, a light, heady feeling, as if a storm was coming. I was about to become dispossessed of something.
This disinterested self-regard was unsettling.
I was full of myself, and yet I found myself an empty vessel.

My thoughts roll like water in a random current.
Memories take on a life of their own, liquid memories that flow without sequence into a succession of rapids and pools.
Sometimes I catch a familiar reflection, sometimes the waters are muddied; there is always an undercurrent of sadness.
Some say that life is a dream, and that one-day we will awake to an alternate existence.
My life could change tomorrow.
Would there be serenity or tumbling confusion?
Could I call it ‘heaven’?

It’s inevitable that mundanities and small dramas set the ripples forming and there they were again. And again, it was through writing that I got to temper that turbulence. Once more I withdrew, simplified and learnt to be alone.
I started writing ‘Keepers’ on the shores of a lake in northern Portugal, and stumbled towards a moment of grace on the roof of a shepherd’s hut back in Corsica. Always close to water, always with a small yellow notepad in hand. Inside the cover of that notepad I had written the words of American poet Galway Kinnell:
‘Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can’.
It was the ‘maybe’ that got to me.

Guided by an unsteady hand, ‘Keepers’ proved to be a collection provoked by loss and a recognition of the importance of touchstones; objects, places and people that inspire us to keep eyeing the horizon, yet offer shelter and safe harbour should things go awry.
We bottle their benevolence and call it ‘home’.
Often unwilling or unwitting bellwethers, their kindred spirit can haunt inanimate objects; a toy plane, a letter, a button, a bible, a key…
These are not pious custodians, just ordinary folk with the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us. And yet something sets them apart, moving us to burden them with our wellbeing. They become the keepers of our faith in other people.
We are comforted in their presence.
We are diminished by their loss.
Their absence is company enough.

***

1969

I remember us standing atop the tower
Peering out beyond and
Beneath the crescent moon
Out into the silver
Wondering
Where the sea met the sky
My hand was in your pocket and
Your pocket was full of stars

And even now
Though your heart is as cold as the moon
My head is full of stars


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