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Michael Harding

From Bird in the Snow

Michael Harding

Summer was over. He didn’t want to leave the sea. He moved into the chalet by the beach and began living on tins of beans and bags of potatoes. He watched the leaves fall from the trees. He spent the long winter evenings listening to the radio. News shows. Talk shows. Arts shows.

Documentaries about wild birds in the sloblands of Wexford. And he rounded off each day with the warm and comforting voice of Daniel O’Donnell singing twenty-three classics from the Jim Reeves Song Book on the album Welcome to My World.

Daniel O’Donnell was more than a Country and Western singer, with a haircut that said butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He was an artist. A seducer. He could touch the chord. He could hint at the emotion. He was understated, and he allowed all the emotions to surface in the listener. Oh Daniel did the job for Gussie! In the privacy of his own little world, Gussie could be anyone he wanted to be, and he played out any fantasy he desired, when Daniel hit the high notes. Yeah. Daniel hit the high notes!

One morning Gussie noticed ice on the roads. The cars were going by with their lights on. What’s this? he wondered. And he scrutinized the calendar and realized to his horror that Christmas was just around the corner. It certainly was. And it dawned on Gussie for the first time in his life that Christmas was an obscene and sentimental mess. The log fires and the snow on the television made everyone in the world feel lonely. Including his mother. Though this year he vowed he would not to go next or near her. He vowed to avoid that long nightmare of sitting shoulder to shoulder with her in the drawing room, watching Sinatra movies and Bing Crosby movies in stony silence.

Here he was in Connemara at the tail end of November but he didn’t quite know what to do instead of going home. The Christmas lights in Cornagore were getting on his nerves. The plastic Santas glowing in the dark. The neurotic version of ‘Jingle Bells’ in the supermarket. And the voices of little boys in frilly red satin singing ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High.

One afternoon in the grocery shop, he glanced at the rack of tapes and CDs and there in the middle of them all was Daniel O’Donnell sporting a red hat, just like Santa himself. Gussie was shocked. He didn’t think Daniel O’Donnell was a man to lower himself to that sort of thing. So after his supper of beans and toast, he took the Daniel O’Donnell tape from the machine and threw it into the rubbish bag, which hung on a knob of the cutlery drawer. He threw Daniel out, and dedicated the night to loud hot girlie music on the radio.

And he was in luck. He found Sinead O’Connor in concert on Radio One. Two whole hours of Sinead O’Connor. Her anguished voice blasting from the two large speakers, and the ceiling shaking with drumbeats. And he danced in the dark. Christ it felt like dancing with Sinead O’Connor herself. It was that close. I’ll give them something to sing about at Christmas, he said to Sinead. But it only felt like dancing with Sinead O’Connor. He wasn’t actually dancing with her. It was only a Sinead O’Connor special, recorded the year before in Zurich, the presenter explained in a sweet cut-glass Dublin accent when the show was over.

He didn’t know where Sinead was that night. In a restaurant in Tokyo maybe, with some of her Tokyo pals, drinking saki and having lots of laughs over the raw fish. Or maybe she was at home in her baby pink pyjamas watching television with a mug of cocoa or giving milk to her baby. Who could tell where Sinead was? One thing for certain: she was not in the wilds of Connemara in a glass wigwam dancing buck naked with Gussie Delaney.

There was a thick pipe traveling horizontally across the ceiling in the bathroom of the chalet, onto which Gussie had attached a secure chain and dog collar. An effective gallows. The chain dangled before his eyes as he sat on the toilet and had a last evacuation. No point in leaving a soiled corpse for the police to be sneering at.

He mounted the rim of the bath and manipulated the chain and collar around his neck. Balancing there naked, and slightly dizzy from the whiskey, he was about to let his weight float into the air, when what does he see but a cat. A dark blur through the fogged glass of the bathroom window. It was Sooty, the neighbours’ black cat, with her four white paws, like socks, sitting on the window ledge. He heard her miaow. And then through the open top of the window Sooty stuck in her little head, and stared straight at him.

After that Christmas was an anticlimax, for both Gussie and Sooty, who took up residence in an orange box beside the fire.

Michael Harding was born in Cavan in 1953. He is a playwright and fiction writer. His work has been performed in Dublin, Cork, Edinburgh, New York and Chicago. He received the Stewart Parker Theatre Bursary and was writer-in-association with The National Theatre in 1993. He has published two novels, Priests (Blackstaff Press, 1986), and The Trouble With Sarah Gullion (Blackstaff Press, 1988). Harding is a member of Aosdana.

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