TOM NESTOR recalls the battle of wills between his parents over what use the new barrel would be put to
My father bought the barrel at an auction, so cheap that he couldn’t turn it down.
It lay in the outhouse for several years as he figured out what to do with it.
It was my mother who suggested that he place it near the back door where it could be easily accessed. But for what reason he wanted to know.
‘Twas he who bought the barrel and therefore should have some say as to how it might be used.
My mother had many uses for a supply of water at her back door and could find many others if put to the test.
There was an orchard on the western side of the house and a wall enclosing it.
One end, near the back door, was left open to ease the coming and going of the household and there were many.
Most walking journeys began from there, walking to school, running errands to Maggie Barrett’s shop, heading at evening time to Dunne’s hurling field, and most often, slipping away quietly, all of us expert, to avoid the drudge of hated chores.
Trouble was that once one passed through the opening you also passed by the kitchen window looking west.
My mother had an invisible eye in her forehead according to the lore of many failures.
So, even before you had passed by the rain barrel, you dropped into a simian position and didn’t stand upright again until the step to the fields was reached.
My father, though he would never accept it, had bought that barrel for a myriad of purposes, some vital, some useful, some grandiose with their full flow of imagination.
Perhaps that was why he paid little attention to their creation until the woman of the house made up her mind and destroyed every one of his intentions, the low blown and the high blown, some ordinary, some soaring with make believe.
It was the sudden declaration that a water container, right beside the house, was a primal necessity, capable of solving many existing problems in one fell swoop, that destroyed his vaunted mythical ambitions.
Even if he just left it in the spare stall in the cow byre, the process of imagining and the fall out therefrom, whiled away many a dreary day in meadow or garden. And probably that was why the vision that my mother had was never put in place.
Her idea was that a tap would convert that water barrel from something useful to something soaring with possibilities. A tap, placed near the bottom, spilling water into basins and pails by the simplest of all actions, the law of gravity. Or, to put it another way, as it was frequented quoted in that part of the world, everything that goes up has to come down.
What a boon it would be, almost nothing in expense, and it wouldn’t require someone with a degree in mathematics, engineering, or nuclear physics, to drill a small hole near the bottom and fix on the brass coloured tap with a few screws.
Think of it. The thought was reminded of, time and again, morning noon and night, after the dinner, after the weather forecast on the radio. And later on again, as the silence enveloped the kitchen and its occupants, she would raise her head from a book she was reading after supper, as if something within it had stoked her remembrance, and wondered, sotto voce, and to no one in particular, when was the tap to be installed.
My father nodded, as if the very same notion had occurred to him, the man of the house, and if a stranger mistook what sounded like acquiesce, he or she would be far from the reality. If asking was failing she then resorted to strategy. There was idle moments when we were all gathered together, particularly late in the evening.
The boss man was sitting in his favourite chair in what we called Barrett’s side, our neighbours within calling distance, lower lip over the top one as if he was unravelling some obscure mathematical problem.
She would subtly make her case for the barrel with a tap, sending it forth in an entirely innocent observation. We were in a dry spell. For weeks the sky was cloudless. She had read somewhere that a clear cloudless daytime sky is blue because the molecules in the air scatter more blue light from the sun than they scatter red light.
My father looked up with a deliberate puzzled face and offered his usual rejoinder, “Is that a fact now. Fancy that?” The beauty about that response was that no one was certain of its interpretation.
The man who uttered the phrase could spin it into several possibilities, as if it were some strange language that every now and then morphed into another form or forms. But the lady wasn’t done yet.
The water in the barrel had gone low. It made filling awkward. A body had to reach down to the bottom with a bucket and then tilt the barrel before that body could fill.
And another thing that was a problem, whether the sky had more blue light than red light or no light at all, was the effort of hauling up a filled bucket and hoisting over the rim. And there was another thing that needed a different solution all together.
Many times lately the barrel had been become the repository of the larger birds, pigeons and jackdaws and crows, which relieved themselves as they passed by overhead. Why don’t you throw something over it, the man said, one of my old coats in the barn. He offered the solution as if it was the product of long hours and a host of prototypes in the making. And that was that. My mother returned to her book. My father reached behind for a Gold Flake cigarette, lit up, inhaled and exhaled, as if the problem had been permantely put to bed.
Secretly I hoped that the tap would never be installed. I had this strange notion, though I had no reason why, that somehow it would change my habits irrevocably and cause me trouble. I had a wild head, full of blonde, wiry hair in those days, that refused to lie down unless compelled to. I was too young to douse it with hair oil.
A youngster like me, smearing on Brlycreem, was unheard of. So, every morning on my way to school, I wetted the comb in the water barrel and pulled it through several times until the hair sat flat. And I wasn’t alone in that solution. I could tell that my class mates did likewise though they wouldn’t admit. I could see the water smear on the hair that appeared when it dried out.
More often than not I washed my face from that barrel, bringing forth water in my cupped hands. No soap. Soap was for sissies. Anyway it was fraught with danger. Very easily the soap would slip from the hands and settle itself, as if that was its calling, in the bottom of the barrel.
And once, on a Sunday, my father was walking the fields, my mother had gone to an ICA excursion, this out of nowhere mad notion appeared to me.
It wasn’t warm enough to go bathing, but the notion kept daring me to do so. So I threw off the clothes, naked as the day I came into the world, and lowered myself into the barrel. I splashed like a hippopotamus at a water hole, imagined that I was the first boy of Great Britain and Ireland who swam the channel. I swam until my fingers started to go blue.