I phoned my friend the other night. It’s a bad time of the year for him, the marking of an anniversary that makes him sad.
‘It was a night just like this,’ he told me, ‘gorgeous, still, warm; swallows skimming the grass. I sat out late enjoying an evening that lasted forever, and then the news came. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the weather’s the same this year. I know I couldn’t be anywhere more beautiful or peaceful to remember her, but I feel so sad. I feel that life is hard.’
I think he knows me well enough to have heard me nodding down the phone in silence. He’d flown back to Ireland to be there for the anniversary and got the bus from the airport the night before, the Derry bus.
‘This young couple got on,’ he told me, ‘youthfulness still on their side. I could tell they were tired but it didn’t detract from how they shone with wellness. They each had a bulging rucksack covered with labels of where they’d been, wore rolled up jeans and boots and raincoats. Looked like they were on a tour of Europe, maybe. Dressed for cool weather but had come from somewhere warm, because they were tanned with tousled hair that had seen the sun. They sat across the bus from me. First she rested on his lap and had a wee snooze and he stroked her hair, and after a while she sat up and he lay for a bit and she stroked his head and let him sleep. How nice – that’s all I thought – how nice. And I felt less sad watching them.’
How nice: simple words, but I know what he meant, and how nice that he could tell me about a moment of tenderness, of happiness that softened his sad return.
This morning I was resting at the shallow end having swum several lengths at Vicky Baths. M-A, who lives in the same tenement, just across the stair from me, was in the lane beside me. She’d also stopped for a breather.
‘Did you hear the party on Wednesday night?’ she asked me.
I told her I had. A group of Spanish people in the next block were celebrating a birthday and they congregated in the backgreen on one of the best nights of the year. I lay in bed, window open, as the sound of their singing was amplified, bouncing around the inner quad that the four blocks create. ‘Cumpleaños feliz, Cumpleaños feliz, Te deseamos todos, Cumpleaños feliz!’ It was 11pm, on the cusp of darkness and their gathering was the sound of happiness.
‘Did you hear the palmas?’ I wasn’t sure if M-A was moving towards complaining about the noise.
‘Is that the name for the clapping?’ I asked.
She told me it was. Yes, I had heard it – the rhythmic flamenco style clapping: hollow and round, then crisp and snappy with breaks and spaces where I my ear didn’t expect them to be. It was music without instruments.
‘Wasn’t it so nice? said M-A. ‘It made me feel happy, I fell asleep listening to them.’
I agreed. I swam off. How nice.
Happiness, Jane Kenyon
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honour of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep mid-afternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.