I had a flashback the other night. Back to when I was commuting by train to the Ministry, just before I bought the Honda. One morning right on time, at about 7.25, the Hutt Valley train pulled in to the platform just as the Paraparaumu train pulled in on the other side. Both disgorged their passengers and the entire platform was filled with shoulder to shoulder commuters, shuffling slowly toward the bottleneck of the station gates. As a group around me fell unconsciously in step with each other, I had a sudden image of the scene from Metropolis in which the trudging workers march to their posts at the change of shift.
I worked my way through the station and down to the underpass that goes to Molesworth Street. Ahead I could hear a busker playing a haunting Irish tune on a tin whistle. He was very good. I have a set of whistles that I try to play, and I do not play them well. I never cease to wonder how some people can coax such beautiful sounds from the instrument. I just can’t.
The music echoed up the underpass and it seemed to me impossible not to follow. I wondered why no one else was as joyously affected as I. As I came up to the player I saw he had positioned himself strategically in front of a tourism poster showing a wild rocky view with a strange – looking erection of stone slabs. “A dolmen”, I thought “And something more”…
“Visit Ireland and the Burren” said the poster. At the very bottom, it said “Poule na Brone, Co. Clare, Ireland” and “Irish Tourism Board”.
Such music was worth being a little late for, and I stood to listen. The crowds shuffled on, pushing past me impatiently. I wanted to tell them to stop and listen because you don’ t hear this kind of music every day. It was full of sorrow and joy like old memories. Their faces were blank and their eyes empty. This music meant nothing to them. Zombies.
Soon I found myself standing alone listening to this young man play. He seemed lost in the music and indeed I felt as if it was carrying me away to some old time in the old country depicted in the poster before me. It reminded me of something I could not quite grasp with my mind. Something like the dreams that fade even as you strive to recall them.
There was a hat on the ground in front of him. I reached into my pocket and felt the handful of change I always carry. Coffee money. Normally I would feel for a one dollar coin (or a two if the busker was really good) but this morning, on impulse I took out the entire pocketful and dropped it into the hat. I immediately felt a slight pang of regret as I saw I had given him nine or ten dollars and a few odd bits of silver.
No coffee today, except the free stuff at work.
The flautist stopped playing with a final flourish and gave a little bow, and very quietly said “Thank ye sir” in a fine Irish brogue.
“You are from the old Country” I said. “Which part?”
He grinned and pointed at the poster. “There” he said. “County Clare”
“Really?” Said I, “Sure , my own Grandmother is from County Clare”. I realised I was putting on a bit of an accent myself.
He gave me a sly smile, and asked ” And do ye still have the small pouch she gave you?”
I was startled and hesitated for a second. He stared straight at me. His eyes were hazel, like my own. His eyes seemed much older than he appeared to be. Maybe he was older than I had thought.
“D’ye have it still?”
I remembered the tiny leather sovereign purse my grandmother gave me when we left England to emigrate to New Zealand in 1957.
He waited expectantly. It did not seem at all strange that he knew about it.
” I do” I said. I had a notion that this was all very important, for some reason that was beyond my grasp.
“And the contents?”
The Gold watch fob ornament I had engraved and gave to my wife”. I said.
A look of concern. “Does she wear it still?”
“She gave it to my daughters. They share it”.
I could swear it was a pitying look he gave me then. “And the other contents”?
“There was a piece of paper with some writing on it but it disintegrated years ago and I lost it. I don’t know what it said, I could never read it.”
“That was your Grandma’s blessing, and ye have it still” he said quietly. Then, as if reciting:
“Duine éigin a ghrá,
obair a dhéanamh,
Agus na caomhnóirí in aice i gcónaí.”
“There was a sixpenny bit. A silver one, worn so smooth it was just a thin disc of silver. I have it still, in the pouch”.
He seemed pleased. “Good. Keep it. Keep it safe. So long as you have it t’is not for long you’ll be short of money.”
“That’s what she told me”.
He touched me lightly on the shoulder. “And won’t I be seein ye again soon” he said.
I stood there thinking of my Grandmother. I could smell stewed apple and cloves.
Then I looked around, wondering where everyone had gone. I was standing in the underpass at the railway station, in front of a poster of Ireland, daydreaming about my Grandmother. Why? Ah! because the poster mentions County Clare, where she was from.
I felt as if something unusual had happened. I had music running through my head. What was I doing here? I looked at my watch. I should be half way up the hill by now. What had I been daydreaming about? I looked again at the poster. Something about it seemed odd. I had no idea what a Burren was. The Dolmen held my attention for a moment, and I felt a shiver run down my spine. “The Hole of Sorrows” said a soft voice nearby. I looked around. But I was alone. There was a figure in the poster I had not noticed before; a man carrying something small. The words across the bottom of the poster almost obscured him as he walked behind them. “Visit Ireland and the Burren” he seemed to be saying.
“Someday I shall” said I, and marched off to work.
Later I wondered what the hell I had done with my coffee money.