The Celtic Cross
For years I’ve whiled away the tedium of Sunday afternoons in the Natural History Museum in London. My eldest sister, Eileen, always thought I must be a masochist. And who knows, perhaps she was right.
It was Sunday.
“Let’s go for a spell to Portugal,” my pale sister Eileen proposed and stared at my mouth. I deliberated. “No, I’ll never travel anywhere,” I decided, and Eileen exited the house without a word. Shortly thereafter, having given the children over to my younger brother Simon, Eileen left us. Shaking a rattle, Simon sighed: “Infamous Brother, Sister has returned to the North.”
I will forever associate Eileen with the North. It was Eileen who, still sucking her thumb, once dragged me from my crib and under cover of night thrust into my hands my very first bottle of petrol. “Let’s go avenge Daddy,” she whispered and looked over at the bed. On the bed, with her cheek nestled in the arm of a Celtic cross, Mother was snoring. The cross was embroidered on an enormous satin pillow that Mother brought to bed every night in place of our father. Ever since the day a bomb had blasted bits of our father all through the church, our mother had become quite distrustful. She boarded the windows and would refuse to shut an eye until our simulated snores had given way to measured breathing and the occasional sleepy whimper. Only once did Mother fall asleep first. It was the very night that Eileen pressed the bottle of petrol into my hands. Moments later, my two older bothers, Paul and Patrick, fell off the rusted gutter on the front of the house, shot down by unidentified (as the newspapers later reported) perpetrators. I was eleven years old at the time, and at the funeral, holding tightly Eileen’s frigid hand, I resolved to become a priest. Shortly thereafter, Mother decided to move us away from Belfast forever.
I became a gardener, and Eileen very soon got married. I shall never understand what induced my sister to marry a Protestant blighter like her husband. As a bachelor, I had little right to voice my opinion in marital matters, thus I observed in silence as Eileen tried to reconcile two mutually exclusive moral worlds. Wanting to feed both the wolf and the sheep at the same time, she would tirelessly plant bombs in Bob’s car before he went to work, then immediately afterwards, driven by marital devotion, inform the London police. Once, however—and it was exactly on the twenty-first anniversary of Paul’s and Patrick’s death that it happened—Eileen neglected to call the police, and Bob left us with a bang and without ever knowing the cause of his death.
The cause was truly unsavory. For several years, Bob had been having an affair with my younger sister Kathleen. Burdened with guilt, Kathleen called the entire family into the room; without a word, she doused herself in kerosene and walked over to the fireplace. I’ll never forget the frenzy in Eileen’s eyes as she stared at Bob. Bob lit his pipe without a word, and Martin, Kathleen’s husband, packed his bags and went back to his mother in Belfast, without even saying goodbye to the children. We stopped hearing from Martin, and it was only recently that Eileen, vegetating as usual in front of the television, noticed his shoe. It was lying next to the detached leg of a terrorist. Eileen turned off the television, calmly took a small bundle out of the desk drawer, and disappeared into the garage.
It was Sunday.
“Let’s go for a spell to Portugal,” Eileen proposed, pale as ever, staring at my mouth. I deliberated. Lying on Eileen’s bed was an enormous satin pillow that gleamed with the carefully embroidered profile of Cromwell. “No, I’ll never travel anywhere,” I decided, put my hand in my pocket, and released the catch on the grenade.
As on every Sunday afternoon, I made my way at a leisurely pace to the Natural History Museum in London.
The narration will drag on into infinity, but the man to whom I owe the most important moment of my life is P. Hammer-Hammer. The permanent state of non-realization that I glimpsed on the pale face of P. Hammer-Hammer one day in an umbrella shop revealed to me that which hours of introspection spent in the company of the most sought-after mirrors of the world would not have been capable of revealing. And although many, many days have passed since that moment, I’ll never (never! never!) forget the expression on P. Hammer-Hammer’s face.
I caught sight of P. Hammer-Hammer on a July afternoon, in an umbrella shop, let’s say, on the corner of Cesar Hoop Street. The umbrellas are just for decoration, props that allow me to redistribute the weight of meaning and arrive at that crucial moment when P. Hammer-Hammer showed me his face.
P. Hammer-Hammer did not even notice that I had come in; he was lost in thought, looking for an umbrella. The salesman was smiling just like any umbrella salesman would smile on a sunny July afternoon, but P. Hammer-Hammer took no notice of that smile; he was lost in thought, looking for an umbrella.
July, afternoon, an umbrella shop, let’s say, and the three of us: a salesman, P. Hammer-Hammer, and myself. I don’t remember which one of us was the most non-present.
Practically petrified, I stood before the vitrine, and without a word (of course) fixed my gaze on the pale face of P. Hammer-Hammer. I observed the way he finally picked out an umbrella (which was merely a prop, decoration for the moment to happen in), politely allowed the salesman to wrap it in finely patterned paper, and—with a thrilling expression of permanent non-realization on his pale face—carefully signed the check with his hyphenated (why?) last name.
Throwing me a blank look, P. Hammer-Hammer carelessly slipped the checkbook into his pocket, picked up the umbrella, and without a word (of course) walked out of the shop.
Sometimes the devil shows up in the mirror, proof of everyone’s worst fears about hell. Suddenly a familiar face surrenders to its adornment with a grimace that previously had been suppressed. Unexpected, a surprise, a blow to one’s third eye. This is how the devil shows up in the mirror.
I caught sight of the devil on a July afternoon, in an umbrella shop, let’s say. Get out! Get out! I thought and, sensing his pale face on me, apathetically picked out an umbrella.
With a smile on my face (and oh what a smile, my God!), I walked with the finely packaged umbrella out of the shop, and with the checkbook clenched in my hand, made my way without a word (of course) up Cesar Hoop Street on a July afternoon.
And the narration?—The narration will drag on into infinity; days will pass. Hundreds of days will pass, each of which just as easily could never come to pass, or pass in the opposite direction, or pass me by and happen for someone else entirely.
And this is something I’ve known for certain since that moment when I saw the face of P. Hammer-Hammer.