Based on a play of the same name, this novel tells the story of Jack O'Brien’s odyssey from inexperienced childhood to mature manhood. Jack’s father, Seán, left the family in County Tyrone to find work as a collier in the South Wales Valleys. Years later, Jack’s dying mother sends him on a quest to find out what became of his father. Seán’s last letter came from the town of Aberuffern, which becomes the novel’s central motif. Lively, blackly humorous, and intelligent, this book is enhanced by a series of 20 woodcuts created by the author.
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About the Author
Mark Ryan was a British guitarist who played in various punk bands during the late 1970s, including Adam and the Ants, and a successful stage writer. He is the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as Told to Carl Jung by an Inmate of Broadmoor Asylum.
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A Symphony of Horrors
By Mark Ryan
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.Copyright © 2012 the estate of Mark Ryan
All rights reserved.
A Word or Two About My Parents
My name is Jack O'Brien and this is the tale of how I went to find what had become of my father. There are voices here that are not my own but that is in the nature of my story as you will soon discover. I would say that everything here is true as it occurred but I cannot vouch for the accuracy of my own memory or the veracity of what I was told by others. Neither can I always say with certainty what was experienced in actuality or produced by a confused and overstimulated imagination. All I offer is a concatenation of all the above and perhaps something more.
My journey begins on a small farm in County Tyrone. It was here I was born and brought up by my mother. Somewhere in the mists of another land was the father I'd never known. But in the reminiscences of my mother I had grown to love and adore him.
On occasion my mother tells a story of my father playing a game with me. Perhaps it is my first and only memory of him or perhaps it is a memory planted in my mind by my mother's not always faultless recall of events. He was never a man who, as they say, hung up his fiddle when he came home from the pub. One evening he teaches me this game.
He sits opposite me, three cards in his hand. He shows me the first and says, here's old Harry, the very Devil himself. Not a good- looking fellow, would you say? And your man here with the meatless chops and holes for eyes, he'll be Death on his horse come looking for us all. But now we see this fine lady, she's the High Priestess and if you find her you'll be safe from the other two lads.
Then my father puts the cards face down – the Devil, the High Priestess and Death in that order. Now all you have to do, he says, is keep your eyes on the lady as I move the cards about a little and then point to where she lies. And if you're right then sure enough you've won the game.
He moves the cards slowly at first then faster and back to slow again before setting them down. I have not taken my eyes from the lady at any time. Now point, he says, so I point at the card without any hesitation. My father turns it over and sighs. So it's to the Devil you're going, my old lad.
But as I said, this may not be my memory but a phantasm of my mother's imagination.
Here is my mother, lying on her deathbed. She has lain there the last seven years since the doctor advised her to take things easy after a minor fall.
'Son, I am passing from this world and I have nothing to leave you but our few old cows and the government money. And one more thing. Take this locket. It has a picture of your own father. He crossed the water promising he'd send some money home, and he did so. For a month or so, he did so. But then the money stopped and I've heard hide nor hair of him since. Take this locket, Jack. It's all I have of that lovely man aside from you, my beautiful son. Take the locket, Jack. Cross the water and find what became of the git.'
My mother is suddenly galvanised by a shock of pain. She washes a few pills down with whatever is in the glass on her bedside table.
'You go with my blessing and that of the Holy Mother Church, God curse the bitch for what has come upon me.'
She crosses herself hastily and sends a fearful glance to the crucifix that hangs on the wall.
'The last place I had the money from was in the Welsh Valleys. Somewhere called Aberuffern. I've written it down on this bit of paper. But that's neither here nor there. There's five hundred pounds I give you. Take it. I've scrimped and scraped and starved you my boy to have it. Take it Jack. My only, lovely boy. Cross the water and find what happened to your father, only man I ever loved aside from you, my dear and handsome son. Find your father, the git.'
Again a wave of pain courses through her skinny old body and she swallows a few more pills.
'Find him and and then I can go to my grave in happiness and peace. Send me a postcard, will you? You'll send me a card from Aberuffern?'
My mother opens the locket and passes it to me. I notice he has a gold tooth and point it out.
'Your father always said a man should wear his wealth in his mouth. He was a handsome lad and kind to me when he was about. You see, he has your aspect about him.
'Now find him, my wondrous son. Cross the sea and bring him home before Death takes claim on me.'
I take my mother's locket and her five hundred pounds and her piece of paper. I wasn't afraid of her dying while I was gone, because I knew she'd never be granted that blessed oblivion until she knew the truth of what had become of my father.CHAPTER 2
The Song of the Peri
There I was a girl
In my dress I'd
Shimmer and twirl
Incensed by life
Until one day my innocence
Was taken away
I can't remember
Perhaps tomorrow I will
The Landlord of the Deryn Du
Oh, I'm an old lad I am
You'll never see a lad like me
I could tell a tale
And it would chill your blood right to the bone.
That Seán Tyrone I knew full well
He had his way with that poor girl
Hanged her father too
And stole away his pub the Deryn Du.
The Ballad of Seán Tyrone
Gareth Miles lived with his daughter in a few rooms above a small public house in Aberuffern. He was proud of the Deryn Du and in his mind the single bar with its faithful band of regular drinkers was his living room, and its kitchen his kitchen, although he offered the customers little provision beyond ham rolls, meat pies and Scotch eggs. The brewery had occasionally put a little pressure on him to introduce 'improvements', but he resisted their suggestions in a polite but firm manner. Their ideas of what constituted a traditional pub in this day and age were not his and lay aslant to what he saw about him every morning when he came downstairs to prepare for lunchtime opening. The Deryn Du might not be bright but it was always clean (thanks to his daughter's efforts) and the beer was well kept and the bar well stocked. Gareth Miles knew his trade and was happy in his place as publican beneath the flaking but picturesque sign of the black bird.
There was but one fly in his soup and he was a young man who Gareth suspected of making a play for his daughter. He had nothing against the Irish or colliers in general; after all they kept the till bell chiming and the boy was polite and sober enough even at closing time, but Gareth had always nursed the ambition that his daughter would marry a professional man when the time came.
Whenever he put forward his views regarding this subject, she laughed.
'So where would I meet one of these professional men? Not here in Aberuffern, that's for certain. The doctor is married with four young children and Mr Roberts the teacher must be three times my age if not more. And as for Reverend John, would you really expect me to spend the rest of my days with a man like that?'
Gareth had to concur with her on this point. The Reverend had strict views on the taking of strong drink and often preached teetotalism from the pulpit of the Methodist chapel. More than once Gareth had felt that these diatribes had been aimed directly at himself and had skulked back to the Deryn Du half in shame and half in anger.
'I still say it would be best to bide your time until a suitable opportunity presents itself,' he said. 'I've nothing against the local lads or even against the majority of incomers for they are a necessary evil to be borne should Aberuffern prosper, but surely the daughter of the Deryn Du can aim higher in her choice of partner and provider.'
Here she would always smile a light-hearted rebuke to his pomposity.
But every night there was the boy on a stool at the bar, leaning on the counter and engaged in conversation with his daughter as she polished the glasses and pulled the pumps. He wished he could follow their discussions, but he loved his daughter and did not want to drive her into the arms of a stranger by appearing to interfere in her business.
One day Gareth was surprised when the Irish lad walked into the Deryn Du just as he was preparing to close the bar for the afternoon. He had never seen the boy come in for a drink this early in the day.
'We're just about to close,' he said. 'And if it's my daughter you're after she's away.'
'I know. At her aunt's for a few days,' said the boy. 'She told me. It's you I was hoping to have a few words with. In confidence, you understand.'
'I've my customers to attend to.'
The boy looked around the bar. There was no one but an old man with an inch of beer warming in a half-pint glass. The boy took the glass and knocked back the dregs before replacing it on the table.
'Off you go, Grandpa,' said the boy. 'It's time for your afternoon nap and besides I have business with your man here.'
'Now look here,' said Gareth, but the boy was already bolting the door behind the old man.
'It's your daughter I'm here to discuss, Mr Miles. As you have probably seen yourself over the last few months we've been getting along fine and I was thinking to myself that it's time to put myself forward. And taking you for a respectable gentleman of the old school I know the right thing to do is ask your blessing before I take any step that might cause you offence.'
'What are you talking about?' said Gareth.
'I'm going to ask your daughter to marry me.'
Gareth made no reply but came around from the counter to collect the empty glass from the table. He wiped the surface with a damp bar towel, unbolted the door and held it open.
'As I said, we're closed.'
'I'll take that for a no then, shall I? What is it? Am I not good enough for a barman's daughter? Are you afraid I'd bring down shame on your pintpot family? Afraid of the pitter-pat of peat-kicking Paddy feet about the place? What makes your daughter too good for the likes of me, Mr Miles?'
The landlord stared at the boy for a few moments before giving his answer.
'It's not that you earn your living with your hands or that, as I suspect, you own little more than the clothes you stand up in, or even that you are an Irishman and a Papist. I pride myself on being as open-minded as any man must be to open the doors of his home to the public. But there is one thing that shows me I must forbid you any further contact with my daughter.'
'And what is that?'
'The gold tooth you have set in the front of your mouth for all the world to see. It shows me that you are no gentleman but a base and vulgar upstart. It shows me that you came from nothing, have nothing and will amount to nothing. And you would like me to give my daughter to a rogue like you?'
The young man held his eye steadily.
'What is not given to me freely I shall take.'
'Get out. I don't wish to see you here again; you are barred from the Deryn Du. It is my privilege as landlord.'
The young man nodded his head and left in silence.
He did not return to the pub that evening and Gareth, who had been left a little shaken by the exchange, felt that the matter was ended and began to relax into his nightly role as an amicable and indulgent host. The hour came for him to call time on his customers and he had come from behind the counter to bolt the door when it was kicked open by the young man's booted foot. He stood in the frame with the moonlight behind him and a rope slung around his neck.
'What do you think you're doing here, you young hoodlum?' said Gareth. 'You are barred from these premises.'
The boy came into the room and bolted the door behind him.
'Now, Mr Miles. The time has come for us to conclude our business.'
He took a knife from his pocket and opened the blade.
'Into the kitchen I think, Mr Miles.'
Gareth, made speechless with fear, backed into the kitchen. The boy followed.
'Stand on the chair, Mr Miles. Easy now, it might not take your weight.'
He took the rope and hung a noose around the landlord's neck. The other end he threw over an ancient oaken beam.
'You remarked earlier on my golden tooth.'
Gareth opened his mouth to speak but was silenced by a jerk on the rope.
'It is not the only gold I have in my possession.'
He folded the knife with one hand and dropped it back into his pocket. Then he reached into his shirt and drew out a golden ring on a silver chain.
'It is the wedding ring I would have offered your daughter, but I don't see the necessity for that now. As I told you, I am in the habit of taking what is not given to me freely and besides, this is my wedding ring.'
He gave another jerk to the rope to assure he had the floor to himself.
'I have a wife and child back in Tyrone and was only looking to amuse myself with your poor mare of a daughter which I might as well now you won't be about fussing like the old biddy you are. Now drop your trousers and your pants as well.'
'What? No. Why?'
'Now my way of thinking is that they'll find you there with your old lad hanging out and jump to the conclusion you've been giving it one with your hand, the rope being there for the added craic as it were. I've been told it's not as uncommon as you might think and this way they won't be getting it into their heads there was any dirty business going on aside from your own. So do as I say.'
The landlord began to sob, but undid his belt and let the garments fall around his ankles.
'So ... do you have anything to say, Mr Miles? Any last words? Ah no, I can't be arsed to listen.'
The young man kicked the chair away and went upstairs to sleep in the landlord's bed.CHAPTER 4
Crossing the Water
When man first massed it was against
Cruel Mother Nature's tooth and claw –
And now we group against the sea,
As we depart our native shore.
The crew ascend the boarding plank
And each man seeks out his own place – Now come
suspicion and distrust
As each man looks from face to face.
Although we gather in our tribes
Described by class or skin or clan,
Expanses greater than the sea
Divide us from our fellow man.
Lewis ap Bwgan, Welsh poet (c.1850-1921)
I went down to the ferry, and the ferry was there. A lorry driver was queueing to roll on. He leaned out of the window and called over to me.
'Hey there, lad. It's a fine day, wouldn't you say?'
'It certainly is,' I said. The sun was shining and a warm breeze was blowing in from the sea. The driver beamed goodwill at me.
'Were you thinking of crossing the water by any chance?'
I told him I was and the driver beckoned me to come nearer. He leaned further out of the window and lowered his voice.
'Then we're much of a mind together. Have you bought yourself a ticket yet?'
'That's good. I have a proposal for you if you'd like to consider it. You can cross the water for nothing if you'd agree to act as driver's mate and then I'll drop you wherever you're off to on the other side.'
I asked myself why he would want to put himself to that trouble. After all we were wholly unknown to each other. The driver's cheery aspect vanished instantly and an almost comic mask of gloom appeared in its place.
'I have a problem with my left arm.'
'Really? What kind of problem?'
'I haven't got one. It makes changing the old gearstick a matter of some difficulty, if not near impossible.'
The mask of gloom was put aside and his sunny manner reassumed.
'So if you could take responsibility for that side of the situation I'd be more than happy to take you to your situation on the other side.'
I agreed and we rolled on to the ferry. James, as I now knew him to be, suggested we should go up to the bar for the crossing. A man and a woman were playing cards.
'Now Jack, I'd like to introduce you to a couple of old friends of mine. This is Mary.'
The woman looked up from her cards and snarled with rat's teeth.
'Call me old again and you won't get to be much older yourself.'
'Mary does like her little joke,' said James. 'And this is Dave, isn't that right Dave?'
Dave nodded weightily.
'That is indeed the name I'd answer to,' he said, after some consideration.
'Pleased to meet the both of you,' I said. James ushered me to a seat at the table.
'Now,' said James. 'Mary and Dave would have no objection to you and I joining them for a little game of cards. You'll play a game of cards with us won't you, lad?'
'But I don't know the rules.'
'That doesn't matter, you'll pick it up soon enough. Won't he, Dave?'
Dave looked at me long and hard.
'Like a dose of the clap,' he said.
'I don't know ...'
'Good, then it's settled. Mary, cut the cards.'
It was a deck of cards such as the one my father had owned. Mary shuffled them and cut.
'There,' she said, placing the cards on the table in front of me. 'It's done.'
'And a good cut it is,' said James, 'don't you think so, Dave?
'It's a good cut.'
'There you have it, son. It's a good cut, so put your money in.'
'He's right,' said Mary, her face almost in mine. 'It's a good cut. What do you think, Dave?'
'It's a good cut. Put your money down.'
'Are we playing for money then?'
They stared at me for a moment and then all three split into laughter.
Excerpted from Seán Tyrone by Mark Ryan. Copyright © 2012 the estate of Mark Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Word or Two About My Parents,
The Song of the Peri,
The Landlord of the Deryn Du,
Crossing the Water,
How Dave Met His Death,
The Reverend John Receives a Visitor,
The Fragile Nature of Innocence,
How Mary Met Her Death,
The Girl in the Deryn Du,
Lord of the Manor,
The Sins of the Father,
How James Met His Death,
The Detective and His Men,
Descent and Ascension,
About the Author,