Seumas O’Kelly – The Haven

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The long journey over the bog was tiring to the men. They sat about, melancholy and silent, for the hours it lasted. Hike trudged along in the path on the bank, stumbling over the rough ground, muttering and praying as he went. Calcutta kept his sentry by the funnel. The Boss hummed monotonously as he wandered about the boat.

There was a little movement, signs of revived interest in the world, as the brown bogland began to merge in the green pastures. A man whistled when they made the wooded places. The boat seemed to glide faster under the great boughs of the overhanging trees. The hoofs of the horse sounded sharp from the granite road, houses sprang up on the landscape, men were to be seen on the hillsides, carts rumbled along the roads. There was a bend in the canal; the men strained their eyes to round it, for round that bend was civilisation and The Haven.
First, the eyes of the men caught the red tiles crowning the roof; slowly the entire roof came to view, then the yellow gable with the open window, the well-known front, with its dark green paint edged with thin gold lines, folded itself out, and the white lettering over the door, “The Haven”, shone to the hungry eyes of the crew. Even Hike, the driver, had been known to raise his head at that bend of the canal.
The boat glided up to the limestone landing-place, and nowhere was she steered with a more delicate tiller. Calcutta stepped lightly ashore, a rope in his hand, wound it about the waiting stump, and the boat, straining hard, was brought to a stand-still. As he unwound the rope from the stump he wiped his dry mouth with his hand, and raised friendly eyes to The Haven. At the same moment the grotesque figure left the tiller, the Boss came from behind the funnel, both their feet touching the ground with military precision. Hike was leading the unyoked horse away to the stables below the village, the crossbolt jolting on the great haunches of the brute. As the crew of three crossed the road to The Haven, the Boss hummed pleasantly, his eyes on Calcutta’s fingers as they jingled some coppers.
Hanks of onions and some brushes made a drapery around the door, swaying in the breeze. When the men stepped into the shop it exhaled a scent of seeds. They were ranged about in bags. The mouth of one sack was folded back. A farmer stood over it, turning a tuber in his hand, his mind given up to the good things of the season. A woman in a grey shawl was handling some pieces of bacon on the counter, her pale, cold eyes filled with that battle-light which shortens the lives of shop assistants in wayside places.
Crockery ware, tins of biscuits, white firkins of lard, yellow pyramids of cheeses rose out of the dimly-lighted spaces overhead. But the men from the boat passed through the oak-stained partition, with high lights of coloured glass. Behind this gilded place was the sanctuary they sought.
It was a long, narrow bar. The counter was high, and of oak. The display of galleries of bottles gave an air of opulence to the place that pleased the men. The girth of the golden-hooped barrels was reassuring. The men sat down on an aesthetic form, facing this display, their feet in sawdust, their hearts filled with the goodness of The Haven.
A dark-haired young man stood at professional attention behind the counter, his hand resting lightly on the cream-coloured handle of the patent cork-puller. Some little feathers clung to his hair. His eyes had a suggestion of Weariness. He left the impression of one who had risen early and hurriedly in some lofty attic. His complexion had moved down to the lower reaches of the jaws. It lingered there in a faded purple glory.
A spare, thin person, with drooping shoulders, was standing at the counter, looking vaguely into a pint measure halfemptied. His thoughts were plainly regretful; he did not even look up when Calcutta ordered the first round. When the men got the measures in their hands they looked into them and forgot the long journey over the bog. The Boss stretched his legs out luxuriously before him, his heels tearing two little dark streaks in the sawdust on the floor.
The wall opposite the bar was taken up with stuff that seemed to flow over from the business outside. Great black pots were hanging from holdfasts. Coils of ropes, wire-netting, milk-strainers, tin cans, hay-rakes, reaping hooks, scythes, packages of sheep-dipping powder, reached up to the ceiling. They suggested husbandry, even industry. Opposite to them blazed the shelves of bottles, the barrels with the great golden hoops about their girths.
But the sense of these antagonisms was lost on the men. They had their backs steadily upon the symbols of industry. The second measure was already in their hands, their fingers about the glasses in a mild sort of ecstasy, devotional eyes upturned to the blazing shelves opposite, a holy silence upon them.
The oak-stained door of the partition swung open on its noiseless springs, and a few men came in. They were from another boat that had just arrived. The driver had the whip, which he never used, looped about his body. One of the group took a stride down the floor, his limbs well apart, rubbed his chin with his hand, gazed contemplatively upon the barman for a little and then ordered, as if in an afterthought, the most obvious of drinks.
One of these men wore an oil-coat of great capacity. The outlines of his figure were barge-like. His face peered out from under a pilot-hat with that intense gaze ahead acquired by those long afloat. The other man knew him to be one who had been at ferry work at the mouth of a river. Circumstances had compelled him to drift into the more secluded reaches of the canal. He was now in charge of a turfboat. The men admired the manner in which he disposed of his first drink.
«Now, men, time is passing. Come along», he said, his oil-coat flapping about him as he swung out.
Nobody followed.
A door leading to an unexpected yard and many stores was pushed open, and a man with a sack tied apron-fashion about him came in. He was a carpenter. He ordered some nails. While the assistant outside went to fetch them, the carpenter, in an expert double shuffle of the feet, moved down to the end of the bar where the light was most romantic. Simultaneously the barman found the same centre, had a glass filled; it hopped by his hand on to the counter, got caught on the same hop by the carpenter, and its contents had vanished down his ready throat before the boatmen had realised what had happened. The nails a moment later were handed in from outside, and the voice of the carpenter was heard in the yard calling out to his apprentice: «Tommy, buck up; what’s delaying you?» Then there was the sound of planks falling from a cart.
«Terrible treatment to give the blessed drink», one of the boatmen said, resuming contemplation of his own measure.
A young lad danced in, with an Irish terrier at his heels, bringing with him a whiff of tar and guano. The men knew him to be a sort of god the son of the owner of The Haven. He had been going about all day, listening to the forbidden talk of the workmen, rat hunting with the terrier, cutting notches with his penknife in unlawful places. He tilted the elbow of an arm that held a foaming measure, and disappeared under a flap in the counter.
The skipper with the pilot-hat returned with some lock-keepers. He accepted refreshment at their request. Then he said:
«Now, men, time is passing. Come along», and went out again.
Nobody followed.
A young girl, leading a small child by the hand, passed through to some inward and private recess of The Haven. The heads of all the men jerked up and followed the female vision as it passed. Their eyes remained upon the thick black hair, tied with a bright ribbon as it fell down her back. As they gazed upon it they knew that according to the calendar and the custom of the country this hair should long ago have been put up. They knew then that the vision was one who wanted to remain suspended in her youth by the hair of her head.
«The youngest sister of the proprietor,” one of the men having local knowledge said. «Brought in to mind the children».
The barman had looked after the vision with a certain pensive ambition and a slight heightening of the complexion on the lower reaches of the jaws. The Boss of The Golden Barque wondered vaguely if the raven-haired barman would succeed.
The man in the pilot-hat returned, beaming cheerfully around him. He had fetched some carters. One of them sang out the inevitable order. The skipper of the turf boat did what was expected of him. Then he went through the partition as breezily as before, saying: «Now, men, time is passing. Come along».
Nobody followed.
The men sat in a long silence on the form. There was a great peace in the place. A brass kettle sang softly over a spirit-lamp. Some flies buzzed overhead. The barman sat down and resumed his reading of a romance entitled “Anastasia and the Duke.” The golden silence was only broken now and again by the soft palpitation of a throat down which a drink was passing. Then a voice said: «What did he say?»
«He said, ‘Time is passing’».
The silence was resumed. The kettle sang and the flies buzzed overhead. Then there was a grump at the end of the form. It was followed by another spell of silence, during which the breathing of the barman, as he stooped over his book, became quite audible, for the romance had reached the chapter in which Anastasia stood in deadly peril of the amours of the Duke.
«What did you say?” The question was droned out from the shadows. The man at the end of the form turned his head round slowly and said:
«I say, who cares a curse for time?» and bringing round his head he hitched his back well up against the wall.
The proprietor passed through The Haven. The barman plunged his hands into a basin of water, and made a great show of washing glasses, his mind brought back with violence from the great scene of Anastasia’s temptation. The proprietor was natty, fingering his waxed moustache, his head slightly stooped, his appearance preoccupied.
«Good-day to the men», he said, without looking up. A moment later his voice was heard in the yard, sharply calling out some orders.
After some time the silence was again broken.
«A great man», one of the group said, taking a pull at his measure.
«A great man», another agreed, after some reflection. Then, after a long pause:
«Aye, a great man»; and the vague person who had all this time, in marked isolation, been meditating over his glass, woke up, finished his potion, and went out, wiping his lips with the back of his hand.
At the partition he met the man with the pilot-hat, who was followed by an assortment of ex-boatmen and carters. He broke into a splendid smile as a carter gave the inevitable order.
«Now, men, time is passing», he said, reaching out for the first filled measure. It vanished.
The partition door was opened timidly, and the haggard face of Hike peered in. Then he slunk down by the men to the extreme end of the counter. There he drank his measure with his back to the others. Calcutta followed his movements with a gleam in his eyes. The Boss frowned, then they all stood up as if in protest.
They spat on the sawdust and hitched their trousers about their loins with the air of men who were bracing themselves to once more face a difficult world. Then they passed through the partition.
The woman in the grey shawl was still leaning over the counter, but the bacon had been put aside, and now her thin hands were carefully feeling over some skeins of wool thread. The assistant was still waiting on her, a look of stupour on his exhausted face.
The men stepped out from The Haven, a faint odour of onions following them across the road. Skirting the road was the yellow water of the canal. Drawn up against the bank were some laden boats, looking picturesque in the clear light of the spring day.
When they got on board The Golden Barque, the Boss paced up and down the deck while the others lay about, smoking. Presently Hike came out of The Haven, and passed sullenly down the road. Suddenly the voice of Calcutta rang out, commanding, insolent.
«Hike!» he shouted.
At the word Hike stood, obedient as a soldier who had been called to attention. A hoarse laugh of derision greeted his action.
Then the Boss saw the grotesque figure of Hike swing about on the road. His face, malicious and repulsive, leered up at the boat from between the humps on his shoulders. The large eyes shone with a sinister light as they were raised to the figure of Calcutta. The lips of the long mouth parted, showing some immense yellow teeth. There was something demoniacal, hellishly ugly and wicked, in the expression of Hike. The Boss noticed that Calcutta sprang to his feet from the box on which he had been reclining.
Hike came over to the bank just below The Golden Barque, the leer sustained on his face.
«You thought you had her, didn’t you?» he demanded of Calcutta. «She was to stay with you for ever, wasn’t she? You were such a beauty nobody was ever to come between you». The voice of Hike was thick with an ugly emotion.
Calcutta measured the figure of the half dwarf, and spat down at him. «Go away and scratch your humps, you spawn of a dromaderry», he cried.
«You were so happy together, weren’t you? a pair of cooing doves?» Hike drawled, covering and uncovering his yellow teeth. «She wouldn’t look at anyone else at all! No man would do for her but yourself! She loved you, did Mollie the Mermaid! »
At the name, Calcutta leapt to the side of the boat, but the Boss confronted him there.
«Go to the cabin», he commanded.
«Let me down to the cripple», Calcutta shouted. «I’ll shake hands with him».
But Hike had moved away, his bulletshaped head quivering between his humped shoulders, his queer cackle of a laugh dying down the road to the village.
Calcutta, his body twitching, went down to the cabin and drank several mugs of water in rapid succession, then threw himself on his back on the bunk, his blazing eyes riveted on the beam a few paces above him, his lusty voice breaking out into a series of ribald songs, one following the other to the same out-of-tune air without any pause.
The Boss stood over the hatch for some time, listening to the rumble that filled the cabin beneath, Calcutta’s vocalism so violent that all words were quite incoherent. Slowly the voice got into a sort of chant, and the words became understandable. Calcutta, glaring at the beam above him, was roaring :
«Oh, oh, oh, I rowled me love in the new-mown hay,
I rowled me love in the new-mown hay,
I rowled me love in the new-mown hay,
Oh, oh, oh, when the cocks they crew in the maurnin!»
The Boss wondered where Calcutta had got his songs; perhaps in the Black Hole. The Boss kicked the lid on to the opening into the cabin, and then resumed his own tramp about the deck of The Golden Barque, wondering, and wondering in vain, as the quiet night settled over the peaceful place, why two men should hate each other so bitterly. He was unable to decide whether it was very tragical or very comical that the memory of a woman should keep ever green their bitterness. One man, the Boss knew, held in his memory that which brought him visions of a white angel in shining joy and glory in heaven; the other man, whose voice now rumbled weirdly beneath, remembered so much of his passion that he exultingly figured her as burning in hell for all eternity.
The Boss gave it up.
«We must unload tomorrow», he said, his eyes roving over the cargo.

THE END

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Seumas OKelly
(Loughrea, County Galway 1881 - 1918). Playwright, novelist, story writer and journalist, O'Kelly was educated at the local school (St. Brendan's College), began his career as a journalist with the Skibbereen newspaper, The Southern Star, then moved to the Leinster Leader in Naas, where he remained as Editor until he went to work for his friend Arthur Griffith’s "Nationality", organ of Sinn Féin founded by Griffith himself in 1906. His brother was arrested during the Easter Rising and Seumas returned to the "Leinster Leader" for a brief stint. There is a plaque in his honour outside the Leader's offices which reads 'Seumas O'Kelly - a gentle revolutionary'. He died prematurely, in November 1918, of a cerebral hemorrhage following a raid at the paper’s headquarters at Harcourt St by British troops anti-Sinn Féin who were celebrating the end of the First World War. In his short life he had an intense literary production, mostly published posthumously, and wrote for several newspapers, including The Saturday Evening Post and The Sunday Freeman of Dublin. He wrote numerous short stories, novels and plays. His short story, The Weaver’s Grave, is among the most acclaimed of Irish short stories. A radio version of this, adapted and produced by Mícheál Ó hAodha, won the coveted Prix Italia for Radio Drama in 1961.