TIME SINGS IN THE MIRROR
In the depths of time a small hand
sows love like raindrops;
light dust falls on the feelings,
an ancient song or a fragrance
of that room that lingers in memory.
Love is the same, transferred;
there are eyes deep inside the mirror
which remains permanent. And youth passes,
the winds pass:
But there is one instant which never passes.
During one of my out-of-work stages in Limerick, but kept busy with writing poems, occasional readings and editing, I stood outside Collins’ “Oyster” Bar and stared at the sign in the window HELP WANTED.
I had just spent a weekend in Dublin trying to sell The Stony Thursday Book around the literary haunts with meagre success, and without the price of the bus, I had hitched all day to Limerick, being splashed by the speeding green merc of Hugh Lennord! My mind was made up to get a job, any job.
Quite familiar with the public side of the counter I opened the door and approached Mrs Collins who was humming a tune while she cleaned the mirrors with newspaper.
“I’d like to apply for the job” I said. “What job?” She answered. “The one on the window” I quipped. “But you’ve no experience of this side of the bar” came the reply. Mrs Collins cut me short before I could embellish my CV and called me to the end of the bar to whisper into my ear “Go down to Dinny O’Malley’s and ask Peg or Dinny to show you how to tap a barrel, fill a pint and give change. Now off with you. Interviews begin at three.”
Dennis was sorting bottles as I entered and being the gentleman that he is, listened to my predicament. Peg was summoned from the storeroom and instructed to teach me the tricks of the trade. Under her watchful eye and kind words of encouragement, I worked for two hours with no apparent display of disgust on the faces of the seasoned patrons.
By three of clock I took my place in Mrs Collins’ hallway along with three other hopefuls. We could all hear the intimacies of the interview and when it was my turn Mrs Collins asked in a loudish voice “Any experience?” “Yes” I proudly replied. “I worked in O’Malley’s of Denmark Street.” “That’s a very good house. You have the job.”
The decision was tactfully conveyed to the unsuccessful candidates and I could not look them in the face as I knew I had got it because my father had once been a customer and good friend of Tom’s in the days when they ate oysters with their pints and played cards until all hours. I worked long hours for little money but I was occupied in the real world, other than books and poems and literary magazines, generally considered a pastime for wasters! Apart from my one week’s experience of working on Tommy O Grady’s pig farm, another chapter in my education was being written in Collins’ Bar.
On one occasion I was left on my own to tend a packed house and unable to cope I stood on a stool and shouted at the top of my voice “If anybody asks me for a drink out of turn they will not be served. I will start from the right and work down to the end. Is that clear” Order was restored. At different angles through the mirrors one could keep an eye on the whole bar and note life’s pageant in its many varied roles.
I learned much from these observations. The addled jockey who rode a winner and was still living off the glory, the silent working man who only spoke when ordering or leaving, and those words were spoken with feeling and nobility. Or the visiting American who bought drinks for the house after I told him the old fashioned joke of how Tom, when asked for ice in a gin and tonic, replied that there was no ice to be had in all of Ireland during the month of July!
I knew I was accepted into the trade when Michael Curtain pronounced one night that I had just served him the best ‘warm’ pint in Limerick. But the most enjoyable part of the day for me was working with Tom in the mornings. I felt honoured in his presence and was aware of maintaining family links. But most of all he created an aura that is often sadly missing in the trade today. Namely, the customer was made to feel welcome and at home. And Tom had life-long customers.
Another sign of the master’s touch was the background sound of classical music as we went about our chores. Such peace and calm is hard to find nowadays but the tradition sometimes prevails in Collins’ and you will find me sipping a pint, drinking in the morning’s magic during the summer holidays.
Exhausted by the end of the working day, Mrs Collins would serve me a pint in the draughty hallway as she counted the takings in the bar. Into my second week I announced that I did not like drinking alone in the hallway and if she didn’t mind I would have it at the bar.
“Aren’t you very particular now” she retorted. I calmly pointed out that I knew what was in the till if that was what was worrying her. And besides, I continued, I could be laid low with pneumonia if I was to endure any more of the hallway. “God Almighty, but aren’t you the strange one.”
No happier working arrangement was ever witnessed in that hostelry, except, perhaps, for more recent times with Owen and Catherine.
I took my pint at the bar and was often served a second as we chatted into the small hours about Limerick and poetry and music and Tom. Over the years, having opted for the public side of the counter, Mrs Collins or Tess, as she invited me to call her but I declined, would always try and attend one of my readings or launchings. We would reminisce about my three months as barman and she would say that it was poetry I had in my head and not the welfare of the customers. I would rejoin by pointing out the great works of her son Michael scattered about the walls, and she would nod.
When I heard the news of her passing something in me went too. But I have a feeling she has only stepped into the mirror, along with Tom and Jim and many another. Ar Dheis De go raibh a-hanam dilis.