When Angels go Home for Christmas (part II)
here’s part II, read first part here Enjoy + share…
When Angels go Home for Christmas
The mummers next stop was Dawltawl, a lonesome village that was cold as a mortuary slab even in the finest day of summer. There were few houses here and no children to welcome them. But their antics and music cheered the people to recklessness and they pressed mugs of whiskey on them, in the hope that they might stay longer. Drink went to the Healer’s head and he sang a rousing ballad called The Wild Rover, to the beat of the kettle drum. The Missing Postman had no letters to deliver, but loosened by whiskey he related all the news and lies he could think of. When he got stuck for words, the white haired lady sang an emigration dirge that brought the villagers to tears. Weeping faces bade them farewell and blessings and prayers echoed after them for miles.
Several of the batch were merry from drink, including young Hawkins, who broke into song when he saw the sea in the distance. He gave a fine rendition of The Boys of Barr na Sráide, a classic song about mummers and his compatriots joined in the last line ‘when the Boys of Barr na Sráide went hunting for the wran.’ After that Bachus sang ‘The Black Velvet Band’ and everyone sang the chorus:
‘Her eyes they shone like diamonds,
You’d think she was queen of the land,
With her hair flung over her shoulder,
Tied up with a black velvet band.’
The mummers called at a few more house on their way to the coast and they were well treated with drink and coin. The collection box was heavy and several of them were drunk by the time they reached the sea. It was snowing now and the sky darkened. Two of the Softwood brothers were bickering and Uaigneas Gallagher had a fit of swearing.
“Will ye all shut up to Hell’s blue blazes!” cried the white haired lady, “We have miles to go before we’re finished. Miles to go!”
She stared at the troublemakers and then snuggled against G’way Bawn on the pony. He turned right on the sea road and led the troupe along The Flaggy Shore.
The snow was falling fast and heavy when they came to the Neither Lands, a large apron of coast broken into twenty or more small islands by centuries of floods and tides. Steppingstones and humpbacked bridges connected islands to each other. Some were inhabited, others were deserted and more were said to be haunted. The mummers crossed the causeway to the Near Island and called to the house of Brewdor, an old man with a young wife. Apart from a huge bed, the room was empty and hushed as a seashell. A blazing fire and several Christmas candles lit the space. The Brewdor clapped his hands and shouted,
He stood in the middle of the floor, bowed graciously and waited for the tune. Running on whiskey, the mummers played fast and reckless and the little man soon wilted. His eyes rolled, his feet tangled and he collapsed in a heap. His wife rushed to his aid and screamed,
“Open the door and let in the fresh air!”
The musicians retreated from the casualty and The Healer went outside for two handfuls of snow and laid the mush on the old man’s face. His eyelids fluttered to life for a minute or two, and he asked to be put to bed. The wife cradled his body in her arms and laid him under a quilt. She turned to the mummers and said,
“Ye nearly killed him, ye’re a proper disgrace, playin’ music like that. If anything happens to him, I’m gettin’ the magistrates after ye.”
“Don’t bother with no magistrates!” G’way Bawn cried, “The Healer will cure Mr. Brewdor. He’ll stay with ye ’till the good man is right as rain. We’ll call for him on our way back to the mainland.”
The mummers slipped outside, the woman mounted the pony behind G’way Bawn and he led the batch to the next island. Bacchus Tobin and Ocras Burke rode in the cart with Dado and progress was slow. Noses dripping, they journeyed across three deserted islands without seeing a house or any sign of life. It was like Napoleon’s retreat from Russia: slow rattle of the kettle drum against the blizzard, cart wheels and pony hooves skidding on ice glazed stones, freezing troops protecting instruments beneath their inside-out-coats. In blind faith they followed G’way Bawn until he shouted,
The troop halted at a cul-de-sac in Illawara, an island of crumbling cottages, emptied a century earlier by a mysterious sadness.
“Back! Back! Back!” ordered G’way Bawn, tension in his voice.
The white haired lady tightened her grip around his waist and pressed her bosom against his bony shoulders.
“Christ,” muttered Dado, “I’m thinkin’ that we’re gone astray.”
On the Near Island, Brewdor thanked Hawkins for not poaching his wife.
“But you have to leave now,” he said, “because we’re goin’ to sleep.”
“And thanks for your help,” she said. “Only for you I’d be a widdaw. And don’t mind the rest of ’em, ’cause you’re the best of ’em.”
With prayers and charms they sent the Healer on his way, and promised to relate his powers to whoever they met. Reeling from praise, he hurried through the snowy night in search of the mummers. He heard the shrill sound of a whistle and it drew him like a mating call. Hawkins followed the notes across three islands before finding a small child blowing a toy do-da outside a thatched cottage. When the child saw him he shrieked,
“The mummers! The mummers!”
The child’s mother appeared and asked,
“Where’s the rest o’ ye?”
“I’m lookin’ for ’em.”
“Well they didn’t call here yet,” she said, “and G’way Bawn’s mummers always call. Come in and wait for them.”
Inside she warmed a pot of fish stew over a driftwood fire and stole glances of him when he took off the Chaplin mask. She inquired who he was and shook her head and smiled when he told her.
“Well it’s a small world,” she said, “tell your grandmother that you met Rince Lynn. She brought me into this life twenty-five years ago, when my mother was a servant girl for the Downwaves in Bearnagweithe. Your grandmother was a very lucky midwife and a great healer.”
“She’s teachin’ me to be a healer.”
“’Tis in you,” she told him, serving the stew.
Rince Lynn listened to how he revived the man on the Near Island, and when she casually mentioned that her little son had eye trouble, he sat the child on his lap and tested his sight by making animal shadows on the whitewashed walls. He concluded the youngster had a lazy left eye and treated it by covering the good eye with one of his Mummer’s ribbons.
“You can change the cover every few days,” he said, “feed him plenty carrots and bathe the eyes in water from Tubbarmacdara if you can get it.”
Rince pressed two silver doubloons on him for his service.
“What are these?”
“Old money from the sailin’ ships. And isn’t this a strange thing, it was the man you cured on the Near Island that gave me a bag of ’em one time. I make brooches and rings out of ’em for the man with the traveling shop. That’s how I get by.”
“It’s time for the mummers to be calling,” the Healer said after she had put the child to bed. He opened the cottage door and stepped outside, listening for their racket. The snow had stopped and all he heard was the whirrey-whirrey of sea birds and the faint lapping of the tide on the winter shore.
“They’ll be here yet,” Rince said. “They’d never leave the Neither Lands without calling. G’way Bawn always calls here.”
She poured two jugs of brandy, lit a candle and prayed the mummers would leave them in peace. Not since the man with the traveling shop visited in November had she any company from the mainland. And this visitor was streets ahead of the man with the traveling shop.
“What other news have you,” she asked, feeding the fire, “tell me about the world abroad.”
“I was in Bearnagweithe just before the Christmas and I saw d’electric light. They have it in a lot of the shops and pubs.”
“What’s d’electric light?” Rince asked.
Without thinking too much, he gave a long explanation that brought a frown to her face and she wondered if she had given him too much drink. He rambled through the world of science, alchemy and magic and predicted advances in civilisation that made her shiver. She thought him too young to know such things and she stared at the fire, her mind wandering back to the last time she was in the company of a drunken man. That was the day herself and the man with the traveling shop got drunk on a cask of rum she’d found on the shore.
She slept with him that same night and when he called again, she was with child. A pious and honest man, he was smitten with guilt and became impotent. He lost his power, and she could never arouse him again. But he still called to see her and their son, leaving them provisions and buying homemade jewellery for his wife. The man with the traveling shop had left a puzzle in Rince’s mind: she didn’t know if she had fooled him, or if he had fooled her.
Soft snores brought her back to the night. The fire was dying and it was time to bed down. She wondered about the young man who was collapsed in a drunken sleep on the sugan chair. Should she put a blanket over him and pile up the fire to keep him warm ’till morning? Or take him to bed with her, just for the company, just for the warmth. She leaned over him and whispered,
“You’ll be more comfortable in my room.”
Rince led him by the arm to room behind the fireplace. She unlaced his boots and helped him out of the fur coat and woman’s dress. He looked at her in the cold blue night and gently touched her head.
“You can go in the inside,” she whispered, pulling back the covers.
The Healer climbed into bed and slid towards the wall. He lay on his back, listening to her clothes fall on the floor, smelling the heat from her body. She cuddled into him and whispered,
“Put your arms around me, this bed is freezing.”
Shy and innocent, he wrapped himself around her and wondered what to do next. The angels were all gone home for Christmas, so anything could happen. There was just Rince Lynn and himself, on a small island in the Neither Lands. Peace on earth and clumsy passion on a goose feathered bed. Lost lovers finding their way home on Saint Stephen’s Night.
Read a book by Eddie Stack this Christmas…