optimus

the optimus

When I was 23, I went away to Ireland to live for as long as my money lasted. I had $1200, mostly because I sold my little Datsun and a Walter J. Phillips woodcut I’d bought with some excess scholarship money a few years before. I’ve written about that time in my novella, Inishbream, as well an essay, “The One Currach Returning Alone”, in Phantom Limb. It was a strange and beautiful time of my life. I’d gone because I felt I’d burned my bridges in Victoria—several failed romances, a difficult relationship with a much-older painter, the sense that I needed to be alone in a way I couldn’t be in a place where I was known; I was young, remember, and not unfamiliar with drama…. I didn’t know where I’d go after the cottage someone had offered me turned out to be unsuitable (it was remote and people had camped in it and burned the floorboards for warmth…this wasn’t discovered until I was taken there to settle in) but luckily I had subsistence supplies: my down sleeping bag and a small Optimus stove my father had given me. I was willing to live quite rough (though I did think floorboards were a necessity, not a luxury). I wanted to try to find out if I was truly a writer. I wanted to test myself in ways I couldn’t really have articulated but somehow I knew I needed to try to find out what I could live without and what I could do in complete isolation. (Remember, I said I was not unfamiliar with drama.) Through a series of lucky encounters, I was led to an island off the Galway coast and a little cottage facing north. I had a big fireplace for heat and a small pile of turf to burn, along with any sticks I could scavenge on the beach, and I had an oil lamp for light. And candles. My down sleeping bag came in handy but I never did need my Optimus stove because the cottage came with a small propane stove. I had to lug the bottle (the islanders called the tanks “bottles”) over to the mainland and get it somehow to the nearest town when I needed a refill so I didn’t cook much, apart from steaming mussels from the rocks below my cottage, cooking nettles into soup, and making rice from the five pound bag I found in a health food store in Galway.

Sometimes I dream of that time so vividly that I wake in tears. I feel such tenderness for that young woman and her loneliness. Last night we were talking in bed and I sipped some Laphroaig, inhaling its wonderful aroma of seaweed and smoky peat, and maybe that’s why I dreamed again of Ireland. Not because I could afford fine single-malt. I couldn’t. I could barely afford the rice. But the turf fire often crozzled and I’d lean into the fireplace, adding bits of stick to try to encourage it to catch and the smoke permeated my sweater. It’s a beautiful smell, I think, and it lasted for ages in the big rough wool sweater I lived in that year. I’d sleep with my window open to the iodine tang of the ocean and it made me dream of storms, of drowning. Sometimes I’d hear a tinwhistle in my dreams, but it was almost certainly the man who played on the little lane above my house. He’d lean over the stone wall and the music would waver in the wind. By the time it found my open window, it was unearthly.

So last night, Ireland, and the Optimus stove, unused, but given pride of place on the table in my cottage. Just in case.

This is all so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tinwhistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along.

—from “The One Currach Returning Alone”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)