Sean Hanrahan is a dual Irish-Canadian citizen; his mother having emigrated from Co. Cavan to Canada in 1958. He holds a degree in English Literature from Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada and a degree in Law from the University of New Brunswick, Canada. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Embers of St. John’s
By Sean Hanrahan
Still reeling from the day’s earlier events, he looked skyward and shivered. Autumn’s crimson and gold scolded him. The North Atlantic wind was bracing; and lectured him with every malevolent gust. He kicked the leaves in the driveway, a habit since childhood. After walking in endless circles around his cars, he went back inside. It was just past noon.
She was no longer in the house, having left that morning with a face on her like a nun on Good Friday. How long she would stay away he did not know, although this time seemed to have an air of permanence. It had gone on long enough, she had said, and it had gotten worse: his extended periods of secluded reading and writing had descended into a constant, regular remoteness and, ultimately, into his present state of near-monastic existence. There had been no children. She was alone in a household of two.
She was no longer in the house and he went on to make an afternoon of it: rum, books, music. He lit a fire and quickly became entranced with it. After a while, what was left in the grate had burned down; though the music continued to play, wafting up to the twelve foot ceiling of his study and filling all the other rooms through the remote speakers. His reverie eventually gave way to a restlessness and, with the fire now only a mere glow, he set out on a walk.
St. John’s, Newfoundland, the oldest city in North America. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he had chosen to stay on the island rather than go to mainland Canada in search of work. The city’s Churchill Square area, serene and comfortable, was where he had sought to live since his boyhood in the working class downtown and where he had purchased a house after the first five hard years of law practice. From houses to shops, the square soon gave way to the Valley, one of the many unofficial entrances to the downtown. Once through there, he emerged amongst the mansions of the Circular Road and Rennie’s Mill Road area, the houses of the historic fishing merchants now lived in by doctors, lawyers and businesspeople. His grandmother, after losing her fisherman husband in the infamous tsunami known as the August Gale of 1935, had then left her outport with her eight children to serve as a domestic in one of these homes. Bannerman Park – the divide between these mansions and the homes of the downtown – sprawled out before him. He went in.
This was the place of his youth; of playgrounds and sports fields and, later, where he had first felt the wonders of attraction. The outdoor swimming pool had been newly-renovated, with closed-circuit cameras deterring the notorious midnight skinny-dippers. He had been amongst them himself many times. He thought of his university years of walking home from the pubs with his carefree friends and jumping the fence to the pool in the wee hours; of their trembling when they got out and of then finding warmth in one another. The memories of first love jarred him; he was hot and cold at once. He shivered.
He walked beyond the pool, past the bandstand, nearer to the Colonial Building, once the seat of government when Newfoundland was its own independent country before joining Canada in 1949. This corner of the park had always been dark on his many sojourns here but, this evening, it was incandescent: a bonfire roared. Perhaps two dozen twenty-somethings stood around the five foot blaze, lost in conversation with plenty of food and beer scattered around, and a guitar laid flat on the grass. He stopped at the far periphery of the scene, his gaze alternating between the flames and the young people.
After an unknown length of time, he moved on, kicking the leaves as he went. Once he had left the park, he reached the downtown itself and, without having thought about it, came upon his childhood home. Decrepit now, it showed all of its 100 year age and none of its hope. He wondered how many times it had been sold since he had lived there; how many families it had seen. He walked past it twice, from both directions and stalled each time in front of its porch, looking left and right. How small it now seemed. There were no lights on and it looked almost abandoned, at least from the front. He thought he’d chance to enter the narrow laneway which led to the rear, where the kitchen was.
He crept carefully step by step along the cramped and long passage; with muffled sounds getting louder as he neared. He lurched over garbage and debris; climbed over an old baby carriage and some collapsed eavestrough. As he began to wonder of the wisdom of this endeavour, he heard children’s voices from the kitchen. Drawing closer again, he peered inside: a birthday party. Joyous, uproarious children all screaming for cake and prizes.
He was well inside the rear yard by then, but yet dared to step on some discarded wood so as to press his face squarely against the kitchen window. He became lost in the party; his mind drifting between sight and imagination.
Suddenly, they locked eyes. The mother of the birthday boy. She didn’t scream or react wildly. She stayed still and so he remained unnoticed by the children. Their gaze held; both mesmerized. At her feet, a spilled drink instead of the dripped water from a park pool.
Shaken, he bolted and ran. Up the narrow laneway, through Masonic Terrace and Willicott’s Lane to Gower Street; up Victoria Street to Queen’s Road and up again Garrison Hill to Military Road.
Finally, he was back at Bannerman Park. It was well past midnight and the place was almost deserted, but he knew where to go. Still in the corner of the park were the remnants of the bonfire; the partiers now sleepily strewn in a circle around its dying glow. He lurched towards them, picking up a huge birch log and slamming it down onto the remains of the fire. It burst into a huge blaze and the startled young people scurried away as he himself edged closer and closer, the tears on his face stinging under the glorious cascade of crimson embers.
*The Galway Review 6 – Printed Edition, April 2018