Nancy lives with her aunt and ailing grandfather in a seaside town not far from Dublin. Eighteen and about to go to university, Nancy has spent her summer consumed in part by unrequited thoughts of her first love, Harry, a man eight years her senior. Nancy’s one haven is the beach, where she has discovered an abandoned hut and claimed it as her personal sanctuary. One day, she arrives there to find that her inner sanctum has been invaded by a grizzled and desperate-looking man whom she names Cassius. An IRA foot soldier on the run, Cassius becomes something of a father figure to Nancy, and in a pivotal moment she agrees to deliver a message for him—a decision that will change her life forever.
A beautiful coming-of-age novel set against the nascent Irish Troubles, The Old Jest is an award-winning portrait of loyalty, loss, and of one fateful encounter that propels a young woman into adulthood.
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The Old Jest
By Jennifer Johnston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
5 August 1920
Momentous day. The sun is shining. That in itself is not momentous – merely, for August, surprising.
The house sits sideways to the sea and facing south, so all the rooms are filled with sun. Judging by the haze on the horizon, almost like steam rising off the sea, the sun is shining everywhere, not just on this stretch of the east coast of Ireland, but in Cork, Skibbereen, Belfast, Galway and Kilkenny; drying up the grass and causing anxiety to the farmers. Weather seems permanently to be causing anxiety to the farmers. Even in England, where I have never been, the sun is shining. We read this in the newspaper which arrives in time for breakfast every morning and keeps Aunt Mary occupied for half an hour or so.
If you climb up the hill at the back of the house, you can see Wales on a clear day. It's not really very exciting, just a grey lump in the distance, but it's somewhere else. Somewhere new. For the last two weeks there has been no sign of Wales at all, just that pale haze steaming gently up into the sky, shutting this island off from the rest of the world.
The morning trains from Dublin have been filled with people coming down from the city to sit on the beach, and paddle and throw stones into the sea, and shout at their children, who change as the hours go by from pale city children to fretful whiners grilled beyond endurance by the unexpected sun. They stay mainly up at the far end of the beach, near to the station and the two small cafes that sell fruit drinks and ice creams, and plates of biscuits and delicious cups of reviving tea. They don't in fact bother us over here at all. Two special trains have to be put on in the late afternoon to bring them back to town, as they don't all fit on the five-thirty from Wicklow. They leave an awful mess on the sand but the tide takes care of most of that. Poor Mr Carroll the stationmaster, however, has a terrible time keeping his station clean and tidy, and is the one person in the village to admit to being glad that heat waves don't happen too often.
It is my eighteenth birthday.
I feel this to be a very important landmark in my life. I have left school. Yesterday I bundled away into the attic everything that had to do with school; the clothes, the books, the rules for living that for so many years they have tried to impose upon me; even the photograph albums, full of the snapshots of friends whom I have no impassioned desire to see again.
Today I want to start to become a person. My new year. My life is ahead of me, empty like the pages of this book, which I bought myself as a birthday present. It is not really a diary, more passing thoughts that give impressions of me, so that in forty years, if, as Bridie would say, I am spared, I can look back and see what I was like when I started out. It is so easy to forget. I have noticed that from watching Aunt Mary, not to mention Grandfather, but then he is a special case, being slowly devoured by extreme old age.
I suppose I shouldn't really have started off by mentioning the weather, only that maybe in forty years' time I will like to know that the sun was shining on the day I first began to look at the world.
There always seems to have been a war. I suppose in forty years things will be much the same, in spite of what people say to the contrary. Even in this small village so many people have been killed. There was my Uncle Gabriel who fell at Ypres, and has his name memorially written on the wall of the Church, with the Rector's son and Mrs Tyrell's brother, who, Aunt Mary said, was a rake and a philanderer, but nonetheless no one would have wanted him to be blown to smithereens by a bullet from a bearded Turk. Father Fenelon's brother and Sammy Carroll from the station, and Paddy Hegarty, the fish man's son, who lost the sight of his right eye and is now a little gone in the head. There are more from round and about only I can't think of them all at the moment. Then Phil Ryan was killed when the British shelled Sackville Street, and Barney Carney was shot last week coming out of a dance hall in Bray, by the Black and Tans. They said it was a mistake. Perhaps they're all better off where they are; that's what Bridie suggests anyhow; whether it's Heaven or Hell, it can't be any worse than it is here. I don't think I agree with her. In spite of the terrible things that happen, I feel it is a great privilege to be alive.
Aunt Mary gave me a tennis racket for my birthday. She hopes in her heart that I will be a good sport and a social success, but I think she is prepared for disappointment. Bridie has made me a cake, which I'm not supposed to know about. Grandfather is beyond giving presents to people. I got seven cards from old school friends and a box of chocolates from Jimmy the gardener, which is really very very kind of him as he doesn't have money to throw around. I can hear him now below my window slowly moving the rake over the gravel. He seems to be impervious to either heat or cold, always moving at his own speed, tying, raking, weeding, sowing, his hands now like ancient roots themselves, searching their way back to peace in the soft earth.
I have no parents. This makes other people either sad or slightly embarrassed from time to time, but as I have never had any, I am used to the situation by now. Aunt Mary is both mother and father to me, a really very satisfactory state of affairs.
There are traces of my mother everywhere: photographs in delightful silver frames, in albums, or tucked into the frames of looking glasses which are now beginning to spot with age and the dampness of the winters. Like Aunt Mary she always seems to be smiling, and her hair curls in charming question marks over her high forehead. On my dressing table, which was once hers, as everything in my room was once hers, is a silver hairbrush with her entwined initials on the back. There are also handkerchiefs in one of the top drawers that I have never been able to bring myself to use. I sleep in the same bed that she slept in as a girl. The same branches tap against the window in the winter storms. The same boards creak under my feet as I climb the bending stairs up to this room, our room at the top of the house. She gave me life eighteen years ago and I killed her. There's gratitude for you.
There has never been any trace of my father in my life. No one ever mentions his name or tells funny stories about him. No face in the dusty albums is ever pointed out as his. Do I owe my slightly beaky nose to him? My straight fine hair? Were his second toes, like mine, slightly longer than his big toes? Is he alive or dead? Good or bad? Sad or gay? No one seems to care. Since the age of about ten I have looked for him. I have stared at middle-ageing men as they passed me in the street, or sat opposite to me in the train on the way up to school in the morning. I have studied hands, hair, ears, skin textures in trams, trains and other people's houses. Though by now good sense has taken over from curiosity, I find I still have the disconcerting habit of staring at strange men, a habit I am trying to break myself of. I am curious to know what sort of a man he could have been to have disappeared as irrevocably as he did.
At least I know where she is. Under a neat rectangle of grass in the small Church of Ireland graveyard on the side of the hill above the village. The hill slopes down towards the sea and the Church crouches for shelter among the dark yew trees, bruised constantly by the winter wind, which blows relentlessly off the cold sea. The churchyard wall is low enough for those ghosts, nostalgic for the world, to see the roofs of the village tumbling down towards the sea, without having to disturb themselves in any way.
My uncle Gabriel is there, too, beside my mother, or rather some of him is there, as, according to Aunt Mary, they didn't find much of him to bury; but Grandfather insisted on his re-interment after the war was over. It was a sad occasion. Bridie said at the time that if anyone had asked her advice, she'd have said to leave the poor man where he was, no good ever came out of shifting bones around the place, and she cried a lot. My grandmother is up there, too, waiting, I imagine, somewhat impatiently for Grandfather to join her. There are upstanding crosses and leaning ones, some moss-covered with the inscriptions almost unreadable. There are slabs on the ground and gravel filled boxes. There are quite a few grassy hummocks with no names or remembering words attached, but Aunt Mary knows who lies in each grave and all about them, even back to the earliest Charles Dwyer Esq., 1698, late of the County of Cork. They all stare across the roofs at the sea, and on a clear day, if they're interested, they can see Wales.
Aunt Mary came out of her room on the floor below and closed the door quietly behind her. She crossed the landing and paused at the attic stairs.
She moved on and stopped for a moment again by the long glass at the top of the stairs. She patted at her hair. A large bun at the nape of her neck counterbalanced the slightly forward droop of her head.
'Darling ... it's time. It's time.'
Nancy came out of her room and ran down the stairs after her aunt.
'The house will fall down one day,' said Aunt Mary plaintively as Nancy landed with a thud beside her in the hall.
'I met Harry in the village and persuaded him back for luncheon. After all ... he seemed delighted.'
The sun dazzled them both as they went out of the hall, and they stood blinking for a moment until their eyes had recovered from the shock.
'He's in the kitchen breaking the news to Bridie.'
'Oh,' was all that Nancy could bring herself to say.
Dear, dear Harry!
Clumps of lavender made the air smell sweet. She pulled a few leaves off and crumpled them with her fingers.
As they turned the corner of the house, the old man's mumbling voice crept towards them. 'Must not forget.' It was like an old gate creaking in the wind. 'Not forget.'
He sat in his wheelchair under a large black and white umbrella, which kept the sun out of his eyes and off the top of his head. His hands were clenched round a pair of field glasses, and, as he stopped speaking, he raised them and trailed them along the length of the railway line, which ran below them on the top of a bank between the distant fields and the sea. Nothing moved on the line or in the field; not even a tired bird disturbed the stillness of the air.
'Did you have a nice sleep, pet?'
Aunt Mary manoeuvred her way under the umbrella and kissed the top of his panama hat. He didn't appear to notice.
'Drinks,' she said, straightening up, her hand for a moment lingering on his shoulder. She turned and went in through the drawing-room window. Nancy sat down on the warm top step and leaned her back against the terrace wall.
'There won't be a train until half-past one, grandfather. There's no point in looking now.'
He gave a little knowing laugh.
'I see other things than trains.'
She pulled a daisy out of a crack in the steps and began plucking at the petals. He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me ...
'Remind me to tell her.'
Loves me not, loves ...
The old man's arms must have become tired, they drooped with the glasses down towards the plaid rug that even on the warmest day held his cold bones together. His eyes drooped too and his head sighed slowly forward. His breath crackled.
... loves ... loves me, I know, loves me not.
A bee droned in the lavender and the sound of a piano climbed slowly up the hill towards them. Chopin.
Nancy threw the mutilated daisy down on to the step beside her.
Chopin. A shaky start and then the white fingers asserted their power and the music became rhythmic, confident. Nancy scowled at a passing butterfly.
'The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide,' sang the old man in his sleep, inspired no doubt by the music.
Nancy saw the straight figure of Maeve, her back to the window, the sun on her strong fingers as they squeezed the music from the keys. Her half-shadowed face had the pale and polished look of the nuns who pass you in the city streets.
Laughter and the clink of glasses. For a moment there was a hesitation in the music but by the time Aunt Mary and Harry came out of the house confidence was established once more.
Harry held a bottle of champagne in one hand and struggled with the cork.
'I gather it's a celebration. Wasn't I lucky to meet Mary in the village?'
Aunt Mary had a bunch of glasses slotted between her fingers.
'We have very few bottles left. It's pre-war. After all, you're not eighteen every day. I love champagne. Love it. Put a cushion under your behind, dear, or you'll get piles.'
'No one,' said Nancy, 'could get piles sitting on this. It's boiling. Positively burning.'
'Do what you're told.'
Nancy got up to collect a cushion from a deckchair.
Aunt Mary rushed a glass under the bubbles.
'Ooops! Bridie, come on out. Champagne. Darling father, wake up. Hold it tight, pet.' She pushed a glass into his surprised hand. He opened his eyes.
'Ah, how joyful!' he whispered.
'It's Nancy's birthday. A joyful day.'
Bridie appeared around the corner, wrapped in her enormous, startlingly white apron. Harry gave her a glass and for a moment they all stood, arms outstretched, looking at Nancy. Bridie spoke first.
'God is good.' She knocked back the drink in one fell swoop. Everyone laughed.
'Happy birthday, Nancy.' Harry advanced towards her. She bent her head and saw his shining shoes moving with purpose in her direction. 'I shall kiss you.'
She turned her face away so that the kiss landed like a falling petal on her hot cheek.
'Gosh!' he said, 'you're boiling. Whatever have you been doing?'
She blushed even more and dipped her head down towards her glass. The bubbles rushed up her nose and she sneezed.
'I'll give yez ten minutes and then it's lunch,' announced Bridie. She marched away, helping herself to some more wine from the bottle as she passed it.
'Whose birthday?' asked the old man.
'That's Maeve playing, isn't it?'
Harry stood close beside her as he asked the question, the sleeve of his cream silk shirt touching her bare arm.
'Nancy's birthday, darling. She's eighteen. Nancy!'
'Nancy!' He took a sip from the glass in his hand. 'My mother's name was Nancy.'
'Yes, pet, that's why we called Nancy, Nancy.'
Just the music dancing. No breath of breeze to blow the sound away.
'Where is death's sting?' said the old man suddenly.
'Oh father, really! Be well, be well today.'
He put the glass down on the table beside him and lifted the field glasses to his eyes. On the railway a lone engine and tender puffed its way along the line.
'That is interesting.' His voice was clear, momentarily almost young.
He let the glasses fall on to his knees and turned to her.
'There was something I had to tell you.'
She wandered over to the bottle and picked it up.
'Champagne doesn't go very far.'
She shared out the remains into everyone's glasses.
'I saw Robert on the line this morning.'
The music had stopped and his words seemed very loud.
'Who is Robert?' asked Harry, slightly interested.
Aunt Mary moved abruptly to the top of the steps.
'No, father.' Her voice was exasperated.
'Or maybe it was yesterday.'
She moved down the steps, the drink in her hand swirling and bubbling with each step she took.
'There is no Robert.'
'But I tell you. I tell you.'
He raised a feeble hand and pointed towards the line.
Aunt Mary paid no heed to him. With quick movements of her finger and thumb she was snapping the dead heads off the roses as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered.
'Who is Robert?' Harry sat down beside Nancy on the step, regardless of piles. She didn't answer. She clasped her hands tight round the cold bowl of her glass. Sparks of light cavorted on the distant sea.
She shook her head.
'I don't know!'
Robert Gulliver had been her father's name.
'He's potty,' she muttered.
'Oh come on Nancy ...'
'He's always seeing things. It gets awfully boring. And singing hymns and ...'
Excerpted from The Old Jest by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 1979 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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