The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín
‘Do you go into Wexford much, Granny?’ Helen asked as her grandmother sat down at the kitchen table.
‘Oh, I go in once a week,’ she said and sipped her tea.
‘How do you get in?’ Helen asked.
‘This only started last year when I sold the sites,’ her grandmother said, moving over to sit at the kitchen table. ‘I decided that I would go to Wexford every Wednesday. So I asked around and I discovered that Ted Kinsella in Blackwater ran a sort of Hackney service. So I arranged with him that he would drive me into Wexford on a Wednesday morning and collect me outside Petit’s supermarket at four o’clock. And I paid him very well for this, as you can imagine. And it was lovely.’ Her grandmother smiled and continued. She appeared to relish this opportunity to talk. ‘I had the day to myself. I would buy a paper and a magazine and sit in White’s or the Talbot and have tea and then I’d wander through the town and look at the shops, and I tried out every place for lunch in the whole town. You’d have to go early or late, or else you’d get into a crush with all the office people. And of course, I’d avoid your mother.’ She laughed almost maliciously. ‘And then I’d go to the supermarket and I’d do the whole week’s shopping. I didn’t know myself. But it couldn’t last, of course. Didn’t Ted Kinsella let it be known around that he was driving into Wexford twice of a Wednesday, and didn’t he start bringing in all sorts of people with him? Oh, they’d want to know all your business, and they’d look up in your face as they’d ask you were you going to sell any more sites. And then one day – this was the week before Christmas – Ted arrived and told me, if you don’t mind, that he had to collect another passenger at five and would I like to wait in the car or would I like to wait somewhere else. And he was already ten minutes late! Oh, I cleaned his clock for him now. I was raging. And I was paying him the same as I was paying him when I drove in on my own. So when I got home I sent him a note with Tom Wallace the postman saying that I wouldn’t be going into Wexford any more. I gave no reason. Sure he knew the reason.’ She paused and pursed her lips as though she was indignant once again.
‘So I thought about it and after a week or so – and I had got used to going in there, it brightened up my whole week – I rang Melissa Power, who’s Lily’s secretary. I used to know her father and she’s very private. Lily had sent her out here a few times with messages when she was too grand to come herself. And I told her not to tell Lily I rang – I was in the phone box in Blackwater – and I asked her who the best taxi driver in Wexford was. I knew there were a few because I had seen ads for taxis in the People. And she gave me the name Brendan Dempsey and I rang him, and he said that it would be expensive all right, but in actual fact it was less than that old fool Ted Kinsella had charged me, and he sounded very nice, very refined, and I go in with him now – oh, he has a beautiful car, I don’t know what it is, and I tell him I feel like the Queen of Sheba sitting in it, and some days he knows I don’t want to talk, and he always asks me if he can turn the radio on. And he’s interesting, he follows the news and he doesn’t put his nose into my business, so I have a lovely day on a Wednesday.’
This is an extraordinary piece of writing. Tóibín is truly perceptive about family relationships, which is not always comfortable, but here he brings a shattered and dysfunctional family together around the impending death of one of them, and allows them to triumph in a most beautiful way. I was reminded once again of Tóibín’s honesty, the way in which he allows his characters to fail to forgive and to misunderstand each other almost wilfully.
Tóibín is specific about his characters and his setting but well before the end of this novel we realise that the central metaphor, the impending death of a son and a brother, is standing in for any crisis in any family anywhere in the world. We are given a group of characters who don’t usually have starring roles, ordinary folk who come together when one of their number begins falling apart, and for a time we are allowed to follow their petty rivalries, their concerns, the ways in which they manipulate each other, and their capacity for humour and denial and invention.
The Blackwater Lightship is an understated, dark love story. Over and over again it is reminiscent of Chekhov and Chekhovian motifs and concerns, while remaining individual and maintaining Tóibín’s unique authorial voice. It is well worth a visit.