Saturday, February 20, 2010

Micheal & Eileen

Andrew Shiels, Cork

When we lived on the west coast of Ireland, we used to buy milk from a small farm. Fresh from the udder, collected in an old enamel pitcher, it tasted wonderful. None of today’s homogenized, chill-sterilized, safe-to-drinkalized stuff. This was whole milk from an old fashioned cow, drawn in the traditional way and much the better for it.
Our house had a couple of acres of grass and Michael the farmer would come over with his scythe in June to cut the long sward for hay. He would work for hours, swishing the blade back and forth. From time to time the scrape of sharpening stone on metal would punctuate the sea breeze quiet. As the day warmed, the fragrant perfume of fallen grass intensified, while drying leaf and stem shrank back. Michael would toil on, carefully economic in his work, the rhythmic elegance of his scythe’s movement would have been the envy of many a golfer.
He was one of the most contented people I had ever encountered. Although bent over old and with knuckles swollen and arthritic, his face always smiled. I could hardly understand a word that he said, let alone a sentence in his broad country dialect, but we seemed to get along just fine. When he stopped for a break, he would sit alone at the edge of the field, drinking cold tea from a bottle. I often invited him over to the house, to sit in the cool shade and eat his lunch, but he never came.
Once all the hay was cut, Michael would call over almost every day to check the crop. Rain was the biggest enemy, but I never remember the hay being spoiled. He would walk along through the drying grass with a two-pronged pitch-fork, tossing the fallen stems in the breeze to hasten their drying. Depending on the weather, this could go on for anything up to a week, before he arrived with his donkey cart to transport the crop home. I liked the idea that the cows giving us milk would feed on hay from our fields.
Sometimes I would go fishing in the afternoon. Down on the rocks I could sit for hours, watching the sea gently rise and fall, catching an occasional fish and relaxing in the solitude. The fish could be quite big, but tasted awful and only our neighbour’s cat would eat them. One day when I reached the top of the cliff path, Michael was there and called to me. I showed him the fish and his face shone brighter than usual. Apparently he shared that cats’ taste and from then forward I would always give my catch to him.
Eileen’s tastes in food were unknown to me, but from the look of the cooking apparatus in their small house, the menu must have been limited. Suspended from a blackened chain, over an ever-embered peat fire in the open hearth, hung a large cauldron. I never saw anything being cooked in it, but always assumed that this was their cooking pot. Although I knew nothing of Eileen’s cooking style, I soon learned of her passion for drink. Michael didn’t touch spirits, but there was always a bottle of whiskey open in the kitchen.
One memorable day my father came with me to collect the milk. Eileen hadn’t seen him for some time and this appeared to her a great opportunity for celebration. She offered us a “drop” which we were too polite to refuse, even if it was only 10 in the morning. She placed a large empty glass on the table before each of us and then half filled both with the spirit, giving herself the same measure. My father and I had enough whiskey to drink her health a thousand times and the fiery liquid burned my throat. When Michael came in with the milk we made a quick exit before the glasses could be refreshed.
Sometime later we sold our house on the west coast and moved inland, losing touch with Michael and Eileen, and resorting to supermarket milk. Several years later I heard that in the end, it was her drinking that did for poor old Michael. I had always assumed that the land belonged to him, but it had been her family’s farm. When milk prices dropped, whiskey prices didn’t follow and their farm income no longer supported Eileen’s craving. So she took off into town on the weekly bus, put the farm on the market and had the place sold within a year.
Michael was devastated. Farming in his simple, yet effective way was all he had ever known and she had taken everything from him. They found him hanging in the cow shed, no suicide note, he had never learned to write. I drove out that way a couple of years ago. The house was almost gone, walls were crumbling and roof timbers were rotting, exposed to the Atlantic gales. I don’t think I will travel that road again.

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