“Walla, Walla, Walla!”
I have no idea where this chant has come from and what it even means. I am just bellowing it out as far as my nine-year-old voice can reach. My mouth is stretched wide, wide as a cave, my neck straining and my throat burning with the effort.
It feels so wonderful way up here, higher than the world, up with the sweetly looping swallows and the odd gliding gull wailing by so close, and I imagine the floating drifts of wispy cloud are a finger touch away. My feet are planted firm and strong on the highest, scariest part of Loughmore Castle.
High and mighty.
I am on the grassy, mossy top of a tiny chamber in the corner of the exposed top floor of this ancient stone fortress, while Dermot and Tom are messing about on the floor below. My fists are clenched and pumping the soft blue summer sky above my head. The pair are looking up at me and clutching their bellies in laughter, and I screech even harder now, and my voice cracks:
“Walla, Walla, Wall … ahhh!”.
I stop for a second or two.
The calico clouds seem so close, like when you’re in an aeroplane, and I’m shouting out now to the green fields that stretch on endlessly around and beyond me, out over the low snaking stone walls and down the perfectly ruled roads and lanes, beyond the perfect miniature cattle, and my ferocious roar must be echoing and thundering in those low far off purple-green hills.
I am the King of the Castle.
I see a couple of figures coming in from the main road, one way taller than the other. They are walking slowly towards the castle …. I stop shouting as they draw closer … something familiar about that hat on the bigger figure … I pick out the short, dark straight hair of the smaller figure… my sister and … oh no, that’s Dad! The real king.
Forbidden to even visit Loughmore Castle and here I am roaring from its very highest point.
Dad can take his time. I am trapped.
I don’t recall much of the aftermath. I can see the three of us sloping remorsefully — me anyway — down the ancient stone stairwell, and meeting up with Dad, the walk of shame to the car, but not much else
“Walla, Walla, Walla!” my Dad faintly whispers now, his voice feather light and his eyes closed as he draws in another painful breath through his nebuliser.
He is in his last days, literally his dying days, and I’m leaning forward in the cheap red leatherette armchair with the wooden armrests, against his hospital bed, leaning into his frail, frail body, rubbing his thin right arm, the one nearest me. Doing the talking as Dad struggles for breath.
“Remember that time in Loughmore Cast ….” I had begun, and he had cut in without missing a beat.
“Walla, Walla, Walla!”, he repeats, even fainter this time, into the clear plastic apparatus that covers his face from the top of his nose down, with a tube connecting it to the oxygen-generating apparatus on the wall behind the bed.
As distraught and as tired and despairing as I am, I had smiled as he took up the refrain.
“Walla, Walla, Walla!” indeed.
A last jaded roar from the real king. Softly echoing in this pristine rectangular white room.
Remember? He and I would never forget it, not even now, with the end of memory approaching for one of us.
Like all those family stories taken out many times over the years, this one was being held up one last time by Dad for amused forensic examination.
At my bidding this time, though, unlike when he would bring it up with less than innocent intent, just as my siblings do even now in our so-called adult incarnations. Of course I am above all that myself …
That old family thing, where it often feels like you are keeping each other in your ordained and ancient places. Out come the old stories and family legends, like old tunes and ballads at a musical gathering, a soft serenade over tea or coffee early in the day, but dipped in something a little more piquant as the drinks get stronger and the defences grow weaker.
For fear you might be thinking yourself beyond their reaches, your feet planted firm and strong in your invented mastery. High and mighty. King of the Castle.
“Walla, Walla,Walla!” Dad had deadpanned, the eyes shut, but his mind still open and vast.
That wonderful shiny old bald head with the white floating drifts of wispy hair around it, a finger touch away, and that wonderful Romanesque nose — which all us three boys had luckily avoided — that great head so full still of tales and hard-won knowledge, and just life, all stored away. For now. And I am desperately drawing out a few last tales, and Dad-isms, before the ultimate epic silence.
I talk of the time those boys took his new hurling ball and lost it in the thistles in the field near his house when he was six …. 81 springs, 81 summers, 81 autumns and 81 winters ago.
Nothing left on those shrunken shoulders now, the shallow chest struggling to catch air. Eyes closed, ventilator on. He is exhausted and falling into the fitful sleep that is marking this last stay in this familiar hospital.
It is time to go.
My Dad, the first of the four brothers to go … always the sensible one, the responsible one, the Garda sargeant
I smile as for some reason I think of his brother Jim, over in Birmingham … Jim, once the wild one. Still close, the pair of them. I actually laugh out loud, as I think of Dad’s regular phone call across the water to Jim. Talking louder than he usually does on the phone, as though geographical distance requires him to do so.
As I step through the revolving door of the hospital and into the lush grounds surrounding it, I feel the wafting breeze that is skittering across the manicured lawns and shrubbery, the dried out russet leaves lifted up and gyrating in its invisible force field.
Why do we notice living nature so vividly when things are dying inside? The wet earthy smell of life and living is all around me now, inhaling the fragrance wafting from the tiny ragged cream flowers on the low Sarcococca shrub in a big brown pot on the flagstones near the door.
A gallant hardy Robin hops on to the dull wooden bench beside me as I sit down to wait for the taxi. My feet are planted weaker and less strong than when I was that young boy, standing high and mighty atop my castle kingdom. My throne is a humbler one now, a simple wooden bench. On levelled ground. No longer high, and anything but mighty.
“Walla, Walla, Walla!” I whisper silently to the departing Robin and out over the tamed November wilderness in front of me. I see two scrawny reddish-brown bullocks chewing on the dormant winter grass in the field just beyond the hospital walls. I feel my mouth curl into a another smile: I am the King of the Cattle!
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