“There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that.” So writes John McGahern in his novel, ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’. It’s a line he gives to an old, moneyed bachelor, one who doesn’t know how to spend his accumulations, and has a fear that the sure way to lose it would be by hitching his wagon to a woman; worse still, to a widow. I’m reading on a pebbled beach on the Costa Del Sol. Stretched on a sun lounger pulled close to where huge breakers are crashing onto a steep shelf, so the water can never quite reach me. I laugh a little too loudly at the words, but no one can hear me because it’s so windy. McGahern gives the line to a self-made businessman from rural Leitrim (not that Leitrim is anything but rural) who is simple but not stupid. Nicknamed ‘The Shah’, he would rather be water-boarded in Guantanamo (he doesn’t say this, but it’s made fairly clear) than be married. I smile as I read more of what the Shah has to say about accompanying his recently bereaved niece on holiday to Bundoran, Donegal’s Riviera: “I notice she’s that little bit fond of the bar. She was in it every evening. That or she’s on the lookout for men.” I reach under the parasol for my late afternoon tumbler of sangria as I look around for possible candidates. I’m joking with myself. I look, and I don’t look; I’ve not one bit of interest, but I feel chivvied along and amused by McGahern. A few pages on, he tells of an older couple getting together via the ‘Knock Marriage Bureau’. Knock being a place of pilgrimage in the west of Ireland for devout Irish Catholics as a result of Holy Mary’s apparition there. Does such a ‘service’ really exist? – I wonder to myself, before looking down and noticing that my knees are sunburnt. Now how did I miss those two patches, neat and round and red? They look just like marks that would be left when you get up from kneeling to say your prayers at the Knock shrine. The knees will sort themselves out, but what about the unanswered questions: How utterly desperate would one have to be to rock up to the Knock Marriage Bureau? And, is it real?
I dropped the book, lay back and let my thoughts drift with the waves rolling in and rolling out. Opportunities seized and opportunities missed – when is it time to be brave and to grasp the moment, go for it, take an audacious step, and when is it better, as McGahern might put it, to ‘let the hare sit’? I have read that in the wild, the hare sits up to signal to a would-be predator – such as a fox – that his element of surprise has been lost. ‘I see you and I can outrun you,’ the hare seems to say, ‘save your energy, for you will not catch me.’ Wise is the fox that does not pursue a hare it knows will outrun it. Wise, too, is the person who can read the signals, leave well alone, and let the hare sit. I pull the shutters on my daydreaming, turn another page, and, in one of those magical moments of bewildering connection, come upon a passage where a cat has caught a baby hare, a leveret, in the dawn, and carries his prize home to his mistress, Kate. She’s sleeping deeply and doesn’t wake when the cat jumps up and lays it upon her. “The cat sat straight up and began to purr. It was a young hare she brought, its brown fur stretched out on the white cover, the white of the belly glowing softly in the darkness. All her attention was fixed on the sleeping woman.” I’m sure there was a deeper meaning to it all, but the only knowledge I could draw was a sudden awareness of the way in which I would least like to be woken; maybe, too, that we are all wild things at heart, seeking attention, recognition, and a little stroking.
Widows and love and hares: I think I know the poem to tie them all together, drawing images from that same part of Ireland. It’s a few short lines from Yeats, telling us that true love leaves a deep and lasting impression. It could be my present mind-set, but I think I hear a note of caution from Yeats telling us to let that grass grow; not to let the past hold a deeper imprint than either the present or what is to come.
‘Memory’, W.B. Yeats
‘One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.’