Note – this is about a real person who lived in the same Parish as myself in Kilkenny City. It is also the last poem I shared with Denis Collins of Wexford before his untimely death in the last week. He was preparing an exhibition on the theme of Work for May Day. Alas it was not be, this was to be one of my contributions. On the Facebook page Kilkenny Down Memory Lane there were some posts recalling notable characters from days gone by, this poor soul was one of the people remembered. His battle cry remains as relevant as ever, “what about the working man?”
On a dark October evening trees reached bare arms towards the little group on the poorly lit street. The few remaining leaves added to the unnatural effects. Leaves dancing across the few street lamps scattered splinters of light and shadow over the youngsters.
“You go first!”
“Why should I?”
“Yeah, why should she?”
“Cos I said so, that’s why!”
“If you’re so brave then go on yourself!”
Silence followed, broken only by the wind rustling yet more dead leaves on the ground. Distant lorries added a low rumbling note, steady and ominous, heard on the fringes of hearing. Somewhere nearby a door slammed and loud footsteps echoed down the narrow street. They had all involuntary jumped at the sudden sound.
The tallest youngster, the last one challenged, looked around his little band of followers. A challenge was a challenge and could not be left unaccepted, even more so when you are the eldest and the tallest.
“All right, I’ll go first, but you all follow! Is that clear?” He looked slowly around the little group who all nodded in reply, some more certainly, firmly, than others. “I go first and you all follow, got it?”
“I will, don’t worry, I’ll follow.” Everyone looked in surprise at the fair haired girl with the good torch in her hand. Her little brother, the youngest of all, stayed close by her side, saying nothing. There was an air about him that if he thought he’d get away with sucking his thumb he would. It was hard to say which he clung to more, his sister or the torch she held.
“Go on then, we’ll follow you,” one of the other boys added. Vigorous nodding of heads expressed heartfelt agreement. Faced with all of this the tall boy now had no choice. He must go on, he had to lead them in.
Rotting ironwork pretending to be the gate it once was presented no barrier to them. As quickly as possible in the gloom they moved past tottering headstones, yew trees pointing towards the dark sky, celtic crosses crumbling towards them. The further they went in to the old graveyard, the deeper the darkness seemed. He hesitantly stepped forwards, steering a course by the dim outline of a large chestnut tree he could see.
If that was the far corner then he knew the collapsed vault he had seen in daylight had to be nearby. He was suddenly afraid he would take one step too far, one step into the waiting open grave. “Damn!” he said, louder than he intended.
Behind him he heard the shouts from the others, “you all right?” “You O.K.?”
Realising he was near enough their target he couldn’t resist crouching down behind a tottering headstone, tall enough still that he could hide in it’s shadow.
“I found it, come on!” he shouted out, grinning to himself in the darkness.
Now the wind sighing through the skeletal branches of trees was accompanied by stifled laughs, squeals of delighted terror, muffled curses as shins barked on unseen kerbstones of graves.
When he judged the moment right he jumped out dramatically from behind the headstone. His loud screech, prolonged as his lungs could bear, was enough. He heard the sounds they made running as fast as they could. Now they were heedless of obstacles, drawn towards the dim street lights like moths with a death wish drawn to the candle’s flame.
A bright beam projected a cone of light along the ground. The fallen torch cast it’s own shadows. The fair haired girl and her little brother had been too stunned by the initial fright to flee with the others. Satisfied with his results the tall boy retrieved the torch and returned it to the girl. The little boy spoke up then. “Well, where is it? You said you’d show us.”
Faced with the pair of them looking at him expectantly and unexpectedly he blurted in reply, “over there, I think,” pointing vaguely to his left.
“Thought you knew, come on so,” the little boy said, dragging on his sister’s free hand. She shrugged and went along with them.
“Wait up then, I’ll show you.” The older boy quickly overtook them and with the torchlight illuminating the ground ahead of him quickly located the dark space yawning open in the ground.
Old red bricks were visible along the sides of the collapsed vault. Three pairs of eyes followed the beam of light downwards. They peered at the rubble of brick, mortar, clay and dust. “There it is!” cried the little boy, calling a halt to the wandering light.
Fascinated he peered down, oblivious to the comments on either side of him. The skull returned his gaze from the furthest corner. Hollowed eye sockets were even darker in the bright light’s glare. Torn between horror and curiosity they seemed frozen in place until the girl felt her brother tugging at her sleeve again, saying, “come on, we can go now.”
With their curiosity now satisfied, their courage tested, they went.