by Colm Tóibín, in response to 'Ten Miles Round'
Her aunt came to visit without warning on a Saturday in late November. Nora had the fire lighting in the back room and the boys were there, engrossed in a television programme while she was in the kitchen washing up dishes. When she heard the knock she wondered if she should take her apron off and check herself in the mirror before she answered, but instead she dried her hands casually on the apron and went quickly along the short hall to the front door. She almost knew as she peered through the frosted glass that it was Molly; it was as though there was something about her aunt’s waiting presence at the top of the steps, something sharp, imposing, impatient, which could make itself felt even through wood and glass.
‘I was down in the town, Nora,’ Molly said as soon as she opened the door. ‘And John dropped me up, and he has business now to attend to, but he’ll collect me later. And I wanted to see how you were.’ Nora saw that there was a car with its headlights on reversing away from the house. She held the door while her aunt walked into the hall.
‘Are the boys here?’
‘They are watching television, Molly.’
‘Are they well?’
Nora realized that she could not take her aunt into the front room and turn on the electric fire there. The room was too cold. But she knew also that if Molly came into the back room, she would insist on talking, she could not be quiet, and the boys would have to turn off the television or sit up close to the set trying to hear it. She could not remember what programme they were watching was or when it would be over. The boys seldom sat together like this now; she wished for a second that she had fully appreciated the calm of the house and the peace, the contentment, in the time before Molly’s knock had come.
‘Well, you have the room lovely and warm, I’ll say that for you,’ Molly said. As she greeted the boys, they stood up warily. ‘Oh taller every time I see them, oh look at them now, little men.’ Nora noticed both Donal and Conor glancing warily in her direction, and she almost asked Molly not to talk too much until the programme they had been watching was over.
‘And the others?’ Molly asked. ‘How are all the rest of them?’
‘Oh very well,’ Nora said quietly.
‘Fiona isn’t home for the weekend?’
‘No, she decided to stay in Dublin.’
‘He’s fine, Molly.’
‘Fiona must see him in Dublin.’
‘I brought you some books,’ Molly said, putting the carrier bag she had been holding onto the floor. ‘I don’t know what you’ll think of them, some novels and the rest are what you might theology, although they are not as dry as they sound. The book at the top is by Thomas Merton and I mentioned him to you already, just after the funeral, and then there’s Teilhard de Chardin. I spoke to Maurice about him in the hospital. But anyway, see what you think of them.’ Nora glanced in the direction of Donal and Conor. They were staring at the television set. She was almost ready to suggest that they turn the sound up.
‘And they’re all well? Maeve must be studying hard. It’s very tough nowadays, there’s a lot of competition.’
Nora nodded politely.
‘That programme will be over soon,’ she said. ‘The boys hardly watch any television, but they like this programme, they always watch it on a Saturday.’
Donal and Conor did not take their eyes from the television set.
‘Oh when they were staying with me, they were great readers, the two of them. We kept the television for the news. None of those rotten American programmes,’ Molly said. ‘You wouldn’t know what they’d be saying on those American programmes.’
When Donal turned to speak, Nora noticed that his stammer seem more pronounced than it had been since it began when Maurice went to hospital. He was not able to get the first word out; she hadn’t seen him having to make such an effort before and then failing, stammering before he even spoke. His younger brother, she saw, was moving one of his arms towards him as though to offer Donal some assistance. She was trying to guess what he wanted to say and felt for a moment like filling in for him to help him, to stop the blocked, staccato sound he was making, his brow furrowed in effort. Instead, she looked away, hoping that he might relax and be able to utter whatever it was he had started to say. Eventually, however, when it was clear that he could not manage, he abandoned his effort and, red-faced, close to tears, he turned back to watch the television.
Nora found herself wondering if there was somewhere she could go, if there was a town, or a part of Dublin with a house like this one, a modest semi-detached house on a road lined with trees, where no one could visit them like this and if they could be alone there, all three of them. And then she found her mind moving towards the next thought – that the possibility of such a place, such a house, would include the idea that what had happened could be erased, that the burden that was on her now could be lifted, that the past could be restored and could make its way effortlessly into a painless presence.
‘Don’t you agree with me, Nora?’ Molly was saying, staring at her intently.
‘God, I don’t know, Molly,’ she said, standing up then, wondering if the subject had moved on and deciding it was best now to offer her aunt tea and a sandwich, or some cake.
‘Don’t go to any trouble now, just a cup in my hand,’ Molly said.
Nora almost smiled to herself in relief as she stood in the kitchen. She knew the boys would not look away from the television unless addressed directly and emphatically by Molly and she knew by the silence coming from the room that Molly was still contemplating the question she could best ask them to gain their full attention. As she boiled the kettle and prepared a tray with cups and saucers, Nora listened but heard only the muffled voices coming from the television. So far, she thought, the boys were winning.
When the programme finished, and the boys stood up to leave the room, she had never seen them as strange, not merely shy but awkward, almost bad-mannered. Donal’s face was still flushed; he could not meet her eyes.
Molly began to talk about the work she was doing on her garden, the large vegetable patch she was creating beyond the haggard and then spoke about her neighbours. Once the boys were out of the room and the television turned off, Molly began to relax, become less declamatory, and Nora found her, as always once she stopped asking foolish questions and making small talk, interesting and engaging.
As soon as she has admired the cardigan that Nora was wearing, she began to talk about clothes and fashion, which was not, Nora thought a subject that normally interested her greatly.
‘Well, there’s a shop in Wexford called Fitzgerald’s,’ she said, ‘and I noticed it when I was passing and the problem I had was that I had two hours to fill in before John was finished whatever business he was doing. So I went in, and there was a lovely friendly assistant, a very nice woman all ready to help. And I began to fit on costumes and then she got all interested in accessories. You should have seen the prices! Oh she had me rigged out ten times over and went off to get more things that might suit me better. I was only filling in time. Sure how was she to know that? And I got a good hour out of it. She was full of this colour and that colour and this cut and that cut and what suited me and didn’t suit me. And then when I was back in my own clothes and ready to depart, didn’t she let a roar at me, that I was wasting her time. And she followed me to the door and said to me that I was not to think of coming into her shop again.’
Nora almost had a pain in her side laughing. Molly remained serious, with just a small glint in her eye.
‘So I won’t be going into Fitzgerald’s to buy my Christmas presents,’ she said sadly and shook her head. ‘The cheek of that woman! A rip of a one.’
Later, when Nora came back into the room, having taken the tray back to the kitchen, she found Molly rummaging in her large handbag and eventually producing a small package.
‘Now, I was cleaning out a bit of the old house, Nora, which is something I hardly ever do, or I start doing it and then I stop so the place becomes so bad that I think I’ll be divorced from my late husband for untidiness, or that my daughter-in-law will divorce both John and myself. A divorced widow. In any case, I came across these. I must have always had them, and I thought I’d show you them.’
Inside the package was an old sepia-coloured folder with black and white photographs in one pocket and negatives in the other; the spine between the two pockets was badly torn. When Nora pulled the photographs out, she recognized her father instantly and then saw that the child on his lap was herself; the next one had her father and her mother standing together and posing proudly, they must have been in their twenties, she thought; they were wearing good clothes. The rest of the photographs showed either of both of her parents, and in some of them she, as a baby, was also in the picture.
‘I never knew these existed,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen them before.’
‘I think I took them,’ Molly said, ‘but I can’t be sure. I know I had a camera, I was the only one who had a camera then, and I must have had them developed and then forgotten about them.’
‘He was very handsome, wasn’t he?’
‘Oh, he was.’
‘And you think my father and mother never saw these photographs either?’ she asked.
‘Unless these are copies,’ Molly said. ‘I just don’t know. It’s strange that I don’t remember. They could have been taken by someone else, but I don’t know why I would have had them.’
‘It’s funny how little they knew then,’ Nora said. ‘How little any of us knew then. About anything. You know I was with him when he died.’
‘You were all with him.’
‘No, we weren’t. It was just me. I was fourteen.’
‘Your mother always said that you were all around the bed when he died. Nora, that’s what she always said.’
‘I know she said that, but she made it up. It wasn’t true. She used to say it even in front of me. But I was on my own with him and I waited for a minute or two before I ran down the stairs, just to spare them all, or spare myself. I sat with him quietly after he died. And then, when I told her, my mother ran out into the street screaming, I never knew why she did that, and nearly the whole town came in while he was still warm in the bed.’
‘They must have said the Rosary or something.’
‘Oh the Rosary. I hope never to hear another Rosary again.’
‘It’s true. God knows it’s true. I might as well say it.’
‘They are very comforting sometimes, the old prayers.’
‘Well, they don’t comfort me, Molly. Or not the Rosary anyway.’
Molly took the photographs again and began to look at them.
‘You were always your father’s favourite, even after the others were born.’
She handed Nora the photograph of her on her mother’s knee. Nora could see her mother posing for the camera sitting stiffly as though the baby on her knee did not quite belong to her.
‘I don’t think she knew what to do with you. You knew what you wanted from day one.’
‘It was easier for all the others,’ Nora said.
Molly began to laugh.
‘Do you remember what she said about you? It was my own fault for asking her which of her sons-in-law she liked best and she said that the more she thought about it the more she realised that she liked all her sons-in-law and all her daughters better than Nora. I hadn’t even asked her about you. I don’t know what you had done on her at the time.’
‘I don’t either. But I’m sure I had done something. Or maybe not. Maybe I hadn’t.’
Molly laughed again.
‘You bit the nose off me when I told you.’
‘I suppose I believed it was funny too. But maybe only when I thought about it after.’
‘Anyway, I found these photographs and I’m sure Pat Crane could make copies of them from the negatives for the others if they wanted them.’
‘They’ll mind of course that they’re not in them.’
‘I think they would love to have a new photograph of your mother when she was a young woman. I don’t think there were many taken of her at that time. They’d love to see what she was like when she was young.’
Nora understood the implications of the remark, the suggestion that she would not. She looked at Molly and smiled.
The boys had come into the room and said goodnight well before Molly left. Later, when Nora went upstairs to look, they were asleep with the light out in their room. Having locked the doors and switched off all the lights downstairs she went to her bedroom and prepared for the night. In bed she stayed awake for some time reading the opening of book by Thomas Merton that her aunt had given her and then flicking through the book. When she found that she was not concentrating, she turned out the light and lay in the dark for a while before slowly falling asleep. When she woke she did not know what time it was, but she thought that it must be the middle of the night. One of the boys had screamed. It was so loud and piercing and frightened that she believed someone must have broken into the house; she wondered if she should open the window of her bedroom and shout out to the neighbours to see if she could wake someone and ask them to call the Guards.
When the scream came again, she realized it was Donal. By that time she had the bedside light on and was putting on her dressing gown. The fact that Conor had not also screamed frightened her more and made her wonder again if she should call out for help rather than go straight into their room. As she opened her bedroom door quietly and stood out on the landing, she could hear Donal shouting out some words and then screaming again. By this time she realized that he was having a nightmare. She opened the door of the boys’ room and turned on the light. When Donal saw her now he sat up in the bed and began to scream almost louder as though it were his mother he was afraid of. When she moved towards him he recoiled and then put his hands out as though to push her away.
‘Donal, it’s a dream, it’s just a dream,’ she said.
Now he was crying rather than screaming and digging his nails into his upper arms in distress.
‘Darling, it’s just a dream. Everyone has bad dreams.’
She turned and looked at Conor. He was watching her calmly.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked him.
‘Maybe we’ll go downstairs and get him a glass of milk. Would you like a glass of milk, Donal?’
He was rocking back and forth, sobbing, and did not reply.
‘You’re all right,’ she said. ‘Really, you’re all right.’
‘He isn’t all right,’ Conor said quietly.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ she asked.
Conor did not reply.
‘Conor, do you know what’s wrong with him?’
‘He moans in his sleep every night.’
‘But not like tonight.’
‘Donal, what was the dream about?’
Donal was still rocking back and forth but he was silent now.
‘Will you tell me if I get a glass of milk? Would you like a biscuit?’
He shook his head.
She went downstairs and fetched two glasses of milk. In the kitchen, she saw that it was a quarter to four in the morning. It was pitch dark outside. As she went back upstairs and came into the bedroom, she noticed the boys were looking at each other but they suddenly looked away when she appeared.
‘What is it?’ she asked? ‘Was it just a bad dream?’
‘Do you remember what it was about?’
He began to cry again.
‘Would you like me to leave the light on? And I can leave the door open. Would that be good?’
‘What was he saying when he was shouting?’ she asked Conor.
She could see that Conor was weighing up how he should respond.
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Was it Molly’s visit?’ she asked Donal. ‘Did that upset you? Do you not like Molly?’
She looked from one to the other.
‘Do you not?’ she asked again.
Neither of them replied. Conor sighed and seemed ready to curl up under the blankets. He had not touched the milk. Donal drank slowly and avoided her gaze.
‘Will we talk about it again in the morning?’
‘We might go to eleven o’clock mass so we can have a good sleep in the morning.’ she said.
Once more, she noticed them glancing at each other.
‘Is there something wrong?’ she asked.
Donal stared past her as though there was something on the landing which had caught his attention. She glanced behind her but saw nothing.
‘I’ll definitely leave my bedroom door open as well, okay? Would that be better?’
‘Do you think you might go back asleep?’ she asked.
Donal finished the milk and put the glass on the floor.
‘And call me if you start having bad dreams again.’
He tried to smile in agreement.
‘Why don’t I turn the bedroom light off and leave the door open and leave on the light on the landing?’
‘Okay,’ he whispered.
‘Nightmares never come back once you wake up from them,’ she said as she moved slowly out of the room. ‘I think you’ll be all right now.’
In the morning, as she made their breakfast, she realized that they would not tell her what the dream was about, even if Donal could remember, and she decided not to mention it unless they did, not to dwell on what had happened in the night in case it might increase Donal’s anxiety. She would, she thought, go to Dr Cudigan and ask him if anything could be done for a stammer, but she would not take Donal with her. She believed that paying attention to it would merely serve to make it worse. Maybe, she thought, it might go of its own accord. She had heard nothing from the school about it and wondered if it were not something that happened only at home. The idea that it would stay with him for his whole life, or even all of his teenage years frightened her so deeply that she tried not to think about it. As she sat with the boys having breakfast, and then as she walked across the Back Road with them to the cathedral, and all through mass, two images returned to her again and again, the image of them looking up when Molly came into the room first the previous evening. Something in their gaze, especially in Conor’s but also in Donal’s, had seemed uneasy, almost frightened. At the time she had thought this was because their television programme was about to be disturbed. But then later, when Donal had woken from his nightmare, and she had mentioned Molly, they had both remained silent. Later, if the chance came, she thought, she would mention Molly again and see what happened, but then she also thought that it was best to leave things alone for the moment, hope that Donal would have no more bad dreams, and hope too that the boys would settle in the house, become slowly used to the idea that their father was dead but that life would go on, and things would change and maybe change for the better.
Despite the fact that neither of them mentioned Molly again, their response to her lingered in the air as the week went on until Nora began to wonder if Molly had come the previous Saturday to test the water in some way, to see how the boys might react to her, or to see if they had said anything to Nora about her. She went over Molly’s visit in her mind, how she seemed not to be able to stop talking when she arrived as though she was nervous about something. And the more she thought about it the more strange it seemed. The boys had been with Molly for the two months as Maurice was dying; they had not seen her since the funeral. Surely, when she came into the room, they should have been more friendly and there should have been more references to their time with her in the conversation, jokes even, or mention of things they did? Molly had seemed as distant from them as they did from her, as though she were a stranger, or worse, Nora thought, as though she were someone of whom they were almost frightened.
On Friday Fiona came for the weekend. The following day Nora told Fiona and the boys that she was going to Wexford to do some shopping and if she was not back by tea time they were not to worry as she might go to the pictures. Fiona looked up from her book and seemed puzzled by the lie, but did not ask any questions. The boys, Nora thought, were too young still to imagine that their mother could possibly invent where she was going, say something which, even as she said it, sounded to her untrue.
She drove towards Bunclody and then turned away from the river towards Molly’s house. She could be unlucky, she thought, as Molly could easily have gone out or have company, but she felt it was better to come like this unannounced and do so before the ideas that she had about what might have happened to the boys in the months before Maurice died festered too much in her mind.
Deliberately, she did not plan what she would say, or even how she would begin. She simply drove towards Molly’s believing that she would know what to do as soon as she saw her aunt. Molly had built her own small house to the side of the old farmhouse when John had married and when she had retired from her job as a teacher. She was proud of its design, how it looked as though it was part of the original house, with windows the same shape and similar slates on the roof. She had made summer quarters, a living room upstairs which had views of the mountains and a small bedroom and a bathroom beside it. Below, she had another bedroom which opened onto the stretch of grass with led to the haggard beyond which was her garden, and, off this bedroom, which also had a bathroom attached, a small cosy room with an open fireplace and a small kitchen. The doorways and the bathrooms, she loved telling her visitors, were designed for a wheelchair, but she still had not decided what floor she would live on when she was fully incapacitated. She would laugh then at the very idea of being incapacitated. She spent her days gardening, reading, listening to the radio and talking on the telephone.
Nora tried to remember how it had happened that the boys had spent two months with her, whether Nora had asked or Molly had offered. She tried to think back to that time, but certain images were so filled with detail, certain hours so filled with pure, unforgettable moments, that the remaining time seemed as though it had been watched through glass covered in rainwater. Walking with Maurice into the lobby of the hospital in the knowledge that he would most likely not come out of there alive. The moment when he had said he would like to go one more time to look at the sky and that she was to wait for him in the lobby, let him do it alone. And then the watching as his body creased in sorrow as he began to cry when he reached the door. All of that was too raw and new for other things, such as, for example, the details of the arrangements she had made for the boys to stay with Molly, to be fully clear to her now.
She should remember what happened, she knew that. It was not as though she was not there and fully alert when these arrangements were made. But whatever they were, she was sure that they had seemed natural at the time, an obvious solution. She was grateful to Molly for taking the boys in, and relieved that they were safe and away from Maurice as he began to decline in ways that his two sons should not have had to witness once she eventually brought him home to die.
He had not died at home, of course. She had to move him finally to Brownswood, the old TB hospital outside the town now used for general patients, when the pain grew too great and his faculties failed and she could not nurse him any more. Even though he was in a stretcher and his eyes were closed and he had not spoken a clear sentence for days, she knew that he was aware that he was leaving the house for the last time. She held his hand, but every time he tried to grip hers his hand would jerk out of control as though it were a claw. At least the boys had not witnessed that.
She drove up the long rutted lane, opening and closing the two iron gates along the way, trying to avoid stepping in the patches of mud and muck, noting the nettles growing tall in the ditches on either among some bright red flowers whose name she did not know. The sky was dark, with bruised clouds hovering low over the Blackstairs Mountains. She found herself shivering when she got out of the car. John’s car, she noticed, was not there. She did not know if it were best to knock on the door of the old farmhouse first or walk around and knock on Molly’s kitchen door, which was the only entrance to her part of the house. Since there seemed to be no sign of life from the farmhouse, she walked around, her shoes sinking in the grass. It must have rained here recently, more than it did in the town, she thought. When she looked in the window, she saw an armchair with a small table beside it with a pair of glasses on an open newspaper, and another table with a vase of bright lilies mixed in with the red flowers she had seen growing in the ditch. Further into the room she saw an unmade double bed. There were random books on the floor that looked as though they had fallen from the bed. Molly must be enjoying her retirement, she thought and smiled.
She rapped on the kitchen door but there was no answer. It was the stillness which struck her now, the silence broken only by the cawing of crows in the distance and then the faint sound of a tractor which at first seemed to be approaching but then seemed to be moving away. She stood and looked around her at the larch trees and the birch trees which almost masked the galvanized sheds in the haggard. There was a pathway leading across the grass to what she knew had once been an orchard. She remembered years before an unexpected harvest of pears and apples, which had come in such abundance only because no one had been tending to the trees, no one had been pruning them, or so Molly had told her, and then after their huge yield the trees had died, or some of them did, and the others yielded no more fruit except some crab apples which no one wanted. It was easier, or less trouble, Molly had told her, to buy apples in the supermarket and no liked the hard pears which had grown here even when they were left to soften. Molly had decided in any case to devote her attention to a new garden she had made beyond the orchard to the side of the haggard. She had made John dig it out for her and bought books and manuals explaining how to grow flowers and vegetables. In her old age, as she enjoyed explaining, she had suddenly seen a good reason to live on a farm and had understood for the first time the point not only of manure but of the soil itself and, indeed, the seasons. Nora could almost hear her voice saying all of this as she ducked under the branches of trees and avoided thorny brambles to see if she would find her aunt in the garden.
Even the slightest shade of blue or red would have stood out as she walked over the stile and stood looking at the vegetable garden. Molly, she noticed, was growing something which required lines of wire and bamboo cane. Nora was not sure if these were raspberry bushes or not. She saw rows of onions and then maybe, she thought, neat ridges where potatoes were planted. Beyond them were the flower beds. It seemed as though a great deal of work went on here and she wondered how Molly’s back withstood the strain. Just then, as she turned, she saw her aunt and realized that Molly had been quietly observing her for some time.
‘Nora, your shoes will be ruined,’ Molly said. She had a small garden fork and some stalks in her hand. She was wearing garden gloves which seemed too big for her.
‘I didn’t see you there.’
‘I thought I’d leave you for a moment to look at all my hard work.’
In Molly’s tone, there was an edge of challenge as though her territory had been invaded. She must wonder, Nora thought, why she had visited and yet it was strange that she had not asked; she spoke as though they had been in mid-conversation.
‘I think I’ve done enough now for the day,’ Molly said. ‘I often start early and then go and read the paper and have my breakfast and then come up again to look at what I did. By this time of the day, I’m finished. Just came up to admire my own handiwork and pull a few more weeds.’
As she moved towards Nora, she seemed preoccupied by something. Her walk was slow and deliberate, her lips pursed.
‘Wait until you’ll old, Nora,’ she said, ‘and then you’ll know. It’s the mixture of being content with even the smallest thing and then the great dissatisfaction with everything. I don’t know what it is. I’m not even tired a lot of the time, and all the same I’m half-exhausted if I even stand up.’
She leaned on her as she made her way over the stile. As they walked through the orchard she slowly pulled the gloves off.
‘Now, we’ll go upstairs,’ she said when they got to the house. ‘It’s tidier and I have a new tea-making apparatus upstairs and a little fridge on the landing and everything. So I’ll wash my hands and my face and I’ll be with you in no time.’
Nora had forgotten how high the ceilings were in the rooms upstairs, how Molly had cut into the attic space. The room was filled with a heavy watery grey light that hit against the grey carpet, the walls painted white, the rich blue lamp shades, the blue cushions on the sofa, the blue curtains, the patterned rug and the long full bookcase and gave the room a sort of opulence that no one coming up the lane or looking at the house from the outside or walking through the dead orchard could expect.
As she stood at the window and looked out at the day, it struck her for the first time how much her two sons would have disturbed the life of these rooms, which had been prepared with such care, even the very untidiness seemed part of Molly’s life, a life that seemed designed now not to be disturbed. It had seemed a reasonable idea then, she remembered. She could not have taken them to stay with her sister in Dublin as there was not room in the house for them. She could not have sent them to Birmingham to her other sister. She could not have left them in the town in the care of neighbours or cousins. Molly had space and time and she lived close enough to the town; the boys knew her; the farmhouse and even Molly’s extension were familiar. It had seemed reasonable then. But, as Nora watched from the window and then turned and took in the space which Molly had created for her retirement with such care, she knew that it did not seem reasonable now.
Molly had combed her hair and put on a cashmere sweater. She pushed in a small trolley with a teapot and two cups and saucers and a bowl of sugar and a jug of milk.
‘We’ll let the tea settle,’ she said and then went to the window.
‘It’s nice here on a fine day and the heating system works so it’s warm in the winter as well. I was worried about the heating but it works….’
‘Molly, I was going to ask you about the boys,’ Nora interrupted her.
‘Are they well?’ Molly asked, moving over towards the trolley.
‘I never asked you what it was like having them here.’
‘What it was like for me?’ she asked.
Nora did not reply.
‘I offered to do it, Nora, and I meant the offer.’
‘What was it like for them?’ Nora asked quietly.
‘Nora, are you blaming me for something?’ Molly asked.
‘No, I am asking, that’s all.’
‘Well, sit down then and stop looking at me like that.’
Nora sat on the sofa and Molly on the armchair beside her.
‘Donal came home with this terrible stammer.’
‘Yes, he got that here, Nora. It began here.’
‘And Conor. I don’t know what it is about him. And Donal had a nightmare on Saturday night. It was the worst thing.’
Molly began to pour the tea having moved the trolley closer to her.
‘Put the milk and sugar in yourself. I can never judge it.’
‘What happened to them here?’ Nora asked.
Molly put a lump of sugar in her tea and then some milk. She took a sip and put the cup down on the trolley.
‘I suppose they noticed the silence,’ Molly said.
‘The silence? Is that all?’
‘Yes. They’re from the town. And maybe we should have sent them to the school where they would have met other boys, but they didn’t want to go. So they stayed here. And it was silent. And they thought you might come and you never did. Sometimes even if a car began to make its way up the lane, or stopped on the road, the two of them would put down what they were doing and sit up. And then time went by. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time.’
‘Maurice was dying.’
‘Both of them wet the bed most nights. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time,’ Molly repeated.
‘I had no choice.’
‘There we are then. Did you think they would come home unchanged?’
‘I don’t know what I thought. I wanted to come and ask you.’
‘Well, you’ve asked me, Nora.’
They both remained silent for some moments. A few times Nora began to say something but then stopped.
‘I was looking after Maurice,’ she finally said.
‘Whatever way you want to put it is fine with me. When Donal began to get upset, I tried to talk to him and reassure him, but I didn’t know when you would be coming. I never knew what Conor was thinking. He’s the one you haver to watch. I phoned and you never phoned back.’
‘Things changed every day.’
‘I phoned and you never phoned back.’
‘Everyone was enquiring.’
‘Was I just everyone?’
‘I never knew how long…’
‘And the boys didn’t either. So we all did the best we could. By the end, they became better. By the end, only Conor wet the bed.’
‘I didn’t know about the beds. I’m grateful to you for what you did.’
‘Go home to them now.’
‘I will, Molly.’
She did not finish her tea, but stood up. She waited for a moment in case Molly would stand up too, but Molly did not. Her aunt was sitting forward in the armchair staring at the floor, her shoulders hunched.
‘Maybe we’ll see you soon,’ Nora said.
‘I’ll drop in some day when I’m in the town.’
Nora made her way down the stairs and around the house to the car. It was still the afternoon, she thought. When she looked at her watch she realized that her visit had not lasted even half an hour. There was still time to go to Wexford, and do some shopping before she went home.Belonging and Visiting
by Colin Graham, Source magazine, spring 2010
Ten Miles Round is a mixture of landscape, interior-domestic, and portrait photography by Jackie Nickerson, all of it centered on a small area of County Louth. In its interspersal of landscape and people (most evident in the sequencing of the images in the slide show which is part of the exhibition) Nickerson’s work edges towards being an anthropological study. However, Nickerson is wary of the observational dissection and distance which the camera can imput when turned on a set of people and their place, and the methodology of Ten Mile Round is partly an interrogation of the space between the observer and observed, camera and subject, as if trying to find the equidistant point between belonging and visiting. To do this, the images, in a quiet and studied way, take risks with their mode of observation.
The people in the portraits seemed to have emerged from their landscape: this impression comes largely through the similarities in the colour palette which is used in each portrait and which is echoed in the landscapes. The subjects of the portraits have deadpan, indirect gazes, most often to the middle distance, a device which initially allows us to look at them without our gaze being returned. The portraits are not simply there to be looked at, though – in each there is a small sense of movement, some sign of individuality; a pen behind the ear of a publican, a tear in a child’s eye, barely perceptible shadows of a hand in the background. Where Nickerson’s previous work in Faith (which also used interiors and portraits) had a faith of its own, a belief that the personality of the sitter would be revealed in the detail of their face, in Ten Miles Round a slightly different dynamic is established.
Where the portraits in Faith suggest a non-narrative timelessness in the lives of the sitters, the portraits here hint at stories, at lives lived in the world beyond the set-up of the portrait, and those signs of what is unknowable in and through the portrait work to create an uneasiness which pervades all the images.
The division of the images in Ten Miles Round (inside and outside, person and place) then overcomes and moves beyond its own initial sense of organic wholeness in the ‘ten miles round’, creating a sometimes miniscule disjunction between and landscape and its inhabitants. `The landscape and the domestic interiors are almost entirely devoid of people, leaving the viewer with the task of peopling the landscape and wondering whether those portrayed in the exhibition feel more comfortable in and on the landscape than they do in front of a camera. There is one image in ten Miles Round of a farmer (almost) outdoors; it appears only in the slideshow, shows him pausing from work in a cattle barn. Elsewhere what are, presumably, his cattle are being fed silage in a shed through an adapted farm gate, though the cattle are in almost total darkness, discernable only by their yellow eartags. Both images verge on showing work being done, as against the still inactivity of the portraits. These two images initially seem out of keeping with the three distinct genres used elsewhere in the exhibition, but the fact that they are centered on gates and boundaries hints at the interest in the other landscape images in particular in the meeting of distinct spaces and points at which that happens.
There are, for example, a series of photographs of the edges of a tillage field that has been cut fro straw. The stubble marks the line of the machined harvest and the images are dominated by the wildly overgrown grass, and the stray fronds of the crop, which the harvester could not reach. Here the borderline is between worked and non-worked land, and the visual signs are of the labour on the landscape. Similarly the agricultural landscape is rendered by messiness rather than pastoral order – the mud left behind by the harvesters and tractors in a laneway uses a kind of realism which is meant to counter romantic visions of farming life, but it does so by registering human contact with the land as a form of violence, just as the ‘nature’ of the photographs which show overgrowing vegetation points to an awareness of the attacks which can be made on human desires for order by the natural world.
Ten Miles Round’s distinction is in the unsensational confidence with which it sees locality as messy, peopled and vaguely unsettling. Through the glimpsed but unglossed life stories in the portraits and the blending of a new realism with a suggestion of metaphoric significance in the landscapes and interiors, Ten Miles Round manages to place itself on the boundary of the picturesque, conscious of the inherent possibility of aestheticisation within the photographic image. The near invisibility of its focus on boundaries and the lines where the two worlds meet gives Ten Miles Round a conceptual poise, balanced, a little like the farmer on the gate, between one space and another.‘The Everyday Gaze’
by Stephanie McBride, Irish Arts Review, Winter 2009
Jackie Nickerson’s fine portraiture first emerged in Farm, her series on agricultural labourers and landscapes in Africa, and was followed by her study of religious communities in Faith.
In her latest body of work, Ten Miles Round, she re-enacts the delicate observation of that portrait work, casting her eye on her own locality in Co Louth and pointing her camera on the people and landscape to rework the overlooked and common-place. The personal and local are, in Nickerson’s gallery, linked – even if this link is undercut by the dogged familiarity of the everyday, which Maurice Blanchot notes ‘one has always looked past…the everyday is what we never see for the first time, but only see again.’ Nickerson’s process of creative documenting renews our vision of the well worn and habitual.
Although it may not be quite the case that, in John Montague’s terms, ‘the landscape is a manuscript we have lost the skill to read,’ nonetheless, economic and other forces have utterly transformed and rewritten the natural contours of the land in many area, making way for golf courses, housing estates, car-parks and interpretive centres, uprooting and redefining our links with our rural surroundings. This is why Nickerson’s views of her local agricultural environment, those remaining terrains not yet swept away in the contemporary clearances, have a quiet ‘shock of the old’. Her landscapes, though empty of people, carry the small traces of individuals who walked and worked the land.
Trees in wintry profile, withered vegetation and waterlogged furrows of Hunterstown (Fig 5), the title itself tugs at older histories and traditions that welded legend, narrative and place.
Two Gates (Fig 3) are reached through a mucky patchwork of mechanically made tracks, upturning the earth, wind-blown clouds covering a landscape that denies the picturesque. Unpromising subjects, perhaps, but her camera steadies our gaze onto the dankness of flooded fields, clabber, ruts and sheughs in these rural images. Mother and Child (Fig 2), invoking a long iconic legacy of art history, is here refracted through her signature engagement with her subjects – a neutral background presenting a young mother, looking off lens, eyes bright, unflinching, a smile just beneath the surface, an ease in her casual but sure grasp of her child. In her open-necked shirt, denim jeans and hair caught back, there is a sense of assurance in the woman’s routine as role of protector and nurturer. Her child is wide-eyes and unaware of the formality of the situation, a bootee lace undone, the denim and colourful clothing echoing the mother’s dress, faint shadows echoing in the background, a ‘mother and child’ portrait for the local here and now.
A neighbouring portrait, Publican (Fig 1), shows its subject seated, hands clasped in a self-conscious gesture and eyes downward cast – shy, reticent and thoughtful, not the conventional subject of formal photography. A pen wedged behind his right ear recalls memories of older, traditional ritualistic stances from other times and places – the butcher, baker or ironmonger – and her, again, a pale background casts the publican in a less familiar mode, denuded of stereotypical trappings, revealed in his own quiet moment.
Nickerson’s interiors also carry a narrative charge (Fig 4). In the glut of television makeovers and property porn, her photographs, by contrast, rely on subdued natural lighting, with a stillness that displays a calm disorder in the settings. These are real rooms, where the chairs and table are not staged by stylists for the camera, nor cushions vigorously plumped for the shoot. Instead she presents a glimpse into a habitat, a domestic space, to invite us into a world seemingly known, yet with its own silent hauntings – who sat here to table and why? Who left a magazine on it? What of the whys and wherefores of the other clutter discarded on the floor? A sense of a life’s movement is curiously caught in this image of the recently vacated furniture.
Her visual register has a sharp focus and direct address which respects and casts into relief her chosen subjects – her fieldwork yields new ways of seeing and interpreting. The portraits demonstrate the power of her restrained simplicity while her landscapes wallow in the mire and unruly hedgerows, and all resonate with the fundamental concerns of where we live and how we appear to others and, ultimately, to ourselves.‘Accidents of Community’
by Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, 27 November 2009
The idea and the fact of community have been constants in Jackie Nickerson’s work for some time. Given that, in one sense, her main subject has been and continues to be the individual portrait subject that may seem slightly contradictory. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 interview with Douglas Keay, an interview which has often been misquoted: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women.” Who is society? The question is not a bad way of summing up the impetus behind Nickerson’s photographs. In them we usually see individuals, but they are invariably enmeshed in communities on myriad levels. Mrs. Thatcher was being critical of individuals who appealed to an abstraction, society, to cope with their needs and solve their problems. Nickerson doesn’t seem to be that interested in abstractions, but she is acutely interested in the reality of how people make, relate to, are variously nurtured and disadvantaged and, inevitably, shaped by their communities. Those communities might be in some respects elective, as with the Catholic religious orders that feature in the series of photographs that make up her book Faith, or they might be economically induced, as they are for the workers who struggle to survive in her series of photographs based on the experiences of farm labourers in several Southern African countries, published as Farm. Or they might, as with her new body of work, Ten Miles Round, have to do primarily with accidents of birth and upbringing. In Ten Miles Round, she explores her own community in coastal Co Louth, a predominantly rural community where farming and fishing and ancillary related activities, are the main occupations. More often than not, community in the sense that interests Nickerson is all but invisible. That is, what is most familiar to us attains a kind of invisibility. Vision is short-circuited by familiarity, recognition requires just a few habitual clues rather than attentive looking, and our everyday world, with its relationships, rituals and routines, its well-worn environments, becomes second nature to us. The everyday is the space, both the physical space and the psychic space, in which we live, in which we love and hate, work and think, in which we are, to varying degrees, ourselves, and that is what fascinates her more than anything. People and places: in conventional pictorial terms, we might divide Nickerson’s photographs into those two subjects, except that it’s clear there is no division. She doesn’t make studies of landscapes, on the one hand, and people, on the other. Each is inextricably bound up with the other. Landscape cannot be separated off into a settled tradition of the picturesque, for example. It intrudes, it’s lived in, it’s often muddy and grubby, and of course it’s beautiful, but not conventionally, comfortably beautiful. It’s noticeable that, while painting is often identifiable as an influence in her work, it’s usually painting from the early Renaissance, when artists were fundamentally figuring out how to depict the world, and people in the world, rather than painting in the more recent sense of the term, as an exercise in visual style. In an interview with Vince Aletti included in Faith, Nickerson is at pains to make clear that she is not a “day in the life of” photographer, although she is interested in documentary photography, “in who we are and how we live.” What’s important, perhaps, is that she doesn’t start with the presumption of a known entity in any sense. The individuals she photographs are unknowns, as are their relationships with the community in which they live. As is, just as importantly, the community itself: there are no reassuring national or cultural stereotypes to appeal to, no readymade identities. We can’t presume anything. It’s all thrown open to question, and nothing is neatly formulaic. Her photographs are a way of making visible what is otherwise unseen. We think we know who we are, we think we know the world we inhabit, but she is fairly sure that we don’t, and she sets out to try and show us what we might look like if we could, for a moment, see ourselves, and the world we actually live in.‘The Global Relevance of the Local’
Tanya Kiang, Source Magazine, Winter 2009
With her considerable record of international exhibition, one wouldn’t readily think of Jackie Nickerson as a ‘local’ photographer, but in Ten Miles Round, her newest body of work, it is precisely the issue of local connection and community that is bought into critical focus. As the name suggests, the work is about a particular area around the photographer’s adopted home in rural County Louth. As Aidan Dunne notes, Nickerson ‘doesn’t start with the presumption of a known entity in any sense. The individuals she photographs are unknowns, as are their relationship with the community in which they live. As is, just as importantly, the community itself: there are no reassuring national stereotypes to appeal to, no readymade identities’. Instead, landscapes crossed by rutted lanes and straggling hedges speak of barriers and enclosures. We are denied a dominant position from which to master the landscape in visual terms: something impenetrable remains – literally and at a psychological level.
Similarly, in delicately posed portraits there is a shyness or reticence at play. An averted gaze conveys a sense of reserve and we must acknowledge a singular, intractably invisible, interior world to which we do not have access. Throughout, the worked, worn contours of the everyday are granted the space and time to reveal their particular beauty. Nickerson’s meditation on her locality in effect becomes a work about belonging, both to a space and to a time. For these images were made during a time when, as Stephanie McBride puts it, ‘economic and other forces have utterly transformed the rewritten the natural contours of the land in many areas, making way for golf courses, housing estates, car parks and interpretive centres, uprooting and redefining our links with our rural surroundings’. This is why Nickerson’s views of her local agricultural environment, those remaining terrains not yet swept away in the contemporary clearances, have a quiet “shock of the old”.
However, Nickerson’s work might be regarded as future socialscapes. Nickerson presents her rural community in an expanded present. The rural way of life is arguably passing or in decline, but throughout the work, she portraits its resilience. And it is this, which grants it a hold onto a future, however uncertain.