The Past

by Neil Jordan

The Past

Paperback, 275 pages, Pgw, List Price: $15.95 | purchase

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The Past
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Neil Jordan

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Book Summary

Chronicles the story of a man searching for the truth about his parents' romantic and mysterious history, a tale he pieces together from the reminiscences of his mother's friend.

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Excerpt: The Past

Cornwall 1914

1

Two postcards of the holiday town in the south-west of England. They show the same scene which makes me think they were chosen thoughtlessly, bought together maybe in the same shop without caring a whit what the picture showed. Or bought separately, two months between them. She had forgotten, of course, what the first one displayed by the time she came round to needing the second. Both are yellow and with serrated edges, yellowest at the edges as if singed by a match. But the flame is time and the smell, far from the smell of burning, is the smell of years.

They don't show the sea or the town, just the esplanade. But from the look of it, even across years, one can't doubt that this row of dowdy four-storey houses faced the sea. And from the look of them too one can surmise a town behind this esplanade that lives off this esplanade and all year waits for the time when the canvas awnings are stretched out and the canvas deckchairs are placed in the front porches. For the houses are obviously hotels and the angular porches are so obviously looking at what in the brochures must have been a sparkling blue sea, one can be sure that the esplanade was wide and elegantly paved, that there were railings on which to lean and maybe even white iron chairs on which to sit and watch that sea, perpetually blue and be cooled by its salt breezes. And there were rows of primitive paddle-boats (they had them then?) rocking, listing on the edge of the tide, and along the strand itself a row of canvas bathing huts. Canvas! Yards and yards of it are implied, painted in those circus stripes, those warm blues, fawns and yellows, stretched over windbreakers, tautened umbrellas and Punch and Judy stands and even barrel-organs. Was it the age of canvas? For the esplanade is full, there must have been attractions galore with which to fill it — and a spa too, behind the town, backed on by the houses, with the heavy lead taps and the metal baths. Was it the age of spas? For of the people who fill the esplanade, immobile and thronging, the women are most obvious, carrying sun-umbrellas. Was there devotion to water, a suspicion of sunlight? In the postcards they look like white, straight brushstrokes, their umbrellas like brighter dabs. And behind each woman, in her shadow almost, is always the predatory form of a man. They arouse my jealousy these men, suspicious themselves of sunlight, at times each man could be each woman's shadow, so much in her shadow he is. But then the whole image is drenched in sunlight as if the shot had been over-exposed or the card bleached by its years on some green felt desk near a window, through which the sun shone. But despite the bleaching of years, the blaze of sunlight could only have come from the day itself, a hot 'salad' day, and there were more of them then for the handwritten date on the back is June the First 1914. The message scrawled underneath is peremptory, almost irrelevant. Back in two weeks, Una. This though she knew, she must have known, her stay would last more than seven months. Which brings us to the main fact the card can speak of, besides sunlight and years — that she was a compulsive liar. The second card bears the same scene, the women still encased in sunlight though the sky must have leadened in those seven months since season, even then, must have followed season. And the message too promises a two-week return. But the signature is different — Una, Michael, Rene — and behind that last name there is a coy mark of exclamation (!). Which brings us to the prime fact that this card proclaims — the birth of her child. And one third fact, perhaps subsidiary, proclaimed by the months that intervened — between the first card and the second the Archduke Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo.

2

Lili's house rises four storeys, like those hotels. Lili lives on the fourth. There's a door which I put my shoulder to, then a dim staircase. There's the smell of moist brickwork, of the canal outside. Memory, she told me once, is mother to the Muses. But what do I know of all those years, of Dev and the Clare election and the Custom House fire? The ashes rose over the city, she told me, of the burnt files of each birth, marriage and death. Then they fell like summer snow, for three days. Lili walked through them, maybe held out her palms, caught the down of her birth-cert on the rim of her schoolgirl bonnet. I would petition her for memories like these. I felt a sharp angle in the banister's curve. I saw the landing then, and Lili's room. I saw Lili, by far the oldest thing in that room. When I entered, she turned in her perpetual cane chair. She smiled.

'Una went there,' she told me, 'to have the child you want to know all about. She went there because she was pregnant, had got married because she was pregnant, one of those sublime mistakes they made then as well as now. He did the dutiful thing, though I'm sure he loved her. I can't imagine him not loving anyone and by all accounts she was a beauty then, not the blousy Republican I got to know later. They married and chose that place for their honeymoon. He was from a Redmondite family, a lawyer with that blend of innocence and relentless idealism that was admirable then, really admirable, and that took the Free State to sully it. He was the best of them, by far the best of them, he was marked out for what would happen to him later, I've head that said, having no way of knowing, my only memories of him are in the kindergarten school out near Mount Merrion, he'd come to visit us in his Free State uniform, the darling of the nuns with those glazed eyes that told you precisely how much he hated it, the heavy ridiculous belts and the shoulder pistols, he must have hated it even more than de Valera hated him, he would walk through the classroom in his wide boots, stammer while refusing the nuns' offer of tea and lift Rene on to his hip.

From The Past by Neil Jordan. Copyright 1980 by Neil Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint Press.

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