Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young WOG (Westernized Oriental Gentleman)
Set in the Fifties, this book of short stories tells the adventures of a young Asian student in Ireland. Brought up in a small town in tropical Malaya, the impressionable young man finds himself transported to a totally different milieu and culture.
The stories follow him from the first tentative steps of his voyage to Europe, to his sojourn in a hostel for Asian students, and the shock of boarding life in a Catholic school; continues with his early awakening and then total embrace of all the cultural and literary delights of Dublin. We meet a tapestry of characters including the poet Paddy Kavanagh. This excerpt from One Summer at Cloc Na Ron is based on one summer in the author’s youth when everything seemed possible: the summer he knew he would be a writer.
The writing of these stories was supported by a grant from Canada Council in 2001. The manuscript was completed in Spring 2007. The story that follows has already been published in two anthologies.
“Seng’s story is not only set in Ireland, it is also reminiscent of the great Irish authors.”
– Laurenz Volkman, Viewfinder Literature
❧ EXCERPT FROM ‘ONE SUMMER IN CLOC NA RON’ ❧
I THINK IT WAS YEATS who had described Connemara as a land of incorrigible beauty. A desolate landscape with old, bare hills, stones and craggy shores, right on the Atlantic. I wanted to go there. I was ready to be enchanted.
The opportunity came in the long summer vacation of 1956. Summer vacation was one of those boons of being a student. Although I did not have the wherewithal to do much, the largess of weeks of unstructured time, of escaping the schedule of the medical student, with lectures and tutorials in the classrooms, demonstrations and clinical rounds at the teaching hospital and long hours in the library, was nothing short of heaven sent. It also meant that I had time to pursue other interests, especially reading.
I jumped at the chance when Joan and Garry offered their cottage, saying I could stay as long as I wished that summer. My bones sang for the green hills, the blue sea, the vast open sky. I set off one fine summer day, ready to meet bards and druids in the wilds of Connemara.
After breakfast, I set out for Cloc Na Ron.
It promised to be a fine day. No one was in sight and I had the road to myself. I had walked for about an hour when suddenly I heard a voice yell out.
I looked about and saw a man leaning on a stave down by the bog.
“Heloo, young fella!” he hailed again.
Lamely, I replied, “Hello.”
“My son, could ya give an old man a hand, I wonder?”
Although he was some distance away, I could hear his every word distinctly.
“What can I do for you?”
“Could ya come down here a minute?” he beckoned with his hand.
I clambered down from the road to the flat field of peat. The man was in his sixties, tall and big-boned, with a large head sitting precariously on a long body.
His face bore fine fingerprints, hinting of a tough physical life, and was as weather beaten as the rocks around the fields. But all was offset by his blue eyes, liquid with merriment and mischief. A two-day stubble sprouted from his upper lip. He offered a wide smile, ushered from a mouth filled with tobacco-stained teeth. I saw that he had a cigarette in his hand.
“Hi ya, young fella!” he greeted cheerily.
“Hello, how can I be of help?”
“Ah ha! You see this pile of peat I’ve cut? You see that shed over yonder?” he pointed with a thick sausage of a finger. “Well then,” he continued, “I’ve to haul them cut blocks over for storage to that shed. Can ya give an old man a helping hand? It will take only a short while with a strong, strapping lad like yourself helping out.” He beamed at me and waited.
“Sure, be glad to.”
The blocks of fresh cut peat were each the size of a brick. We set to work, each filling a brown burlap sack with the bricks. Then tottered unsteadily with this burden towards the shed which was about fifty yards away. It was heavy going. The old man had a limp. Despite this, he did as much work as I did, a grin hovering on his lips. We did not speak, concentrating on our task. After a dozen trips, we paused to rest.
It was hot. We took off our shirts. The summer sun rose to its zenith. Nothing stirred, no shady trees under which we might shelter, no sweet cordial wind to soothe our bodies. We stood there, squirming in the glare.
“What’s your name, young fella? Me, they call me Paddy.”
“Tony.” I offered him my Christian name.
“You from the big city.? From Galway?”
“Yes, I’m from the big city. But I’m from Dublin, not Galway.”
“Dublin? Sure you come a long ways away. I meself have never been there, never set foot on it. Why, even Galway, I’ve been only a couple of times.”
Yes, definitely tethered to his own place on earth. While I, I had become a peripatetic traveller, footloose.
“Now, if you don’t mind,” Paddy said, “Let’s carry on with our work,” he urged.
So we began again to load the sacks of peat bricks and carry them to the shed. We were soon bathed in sweat. We halted again for another breather. The heat and stillness were intolerable. Oh for a cool breeze, a breeze, a kingdom for a breeze!
“No, I have never been to Dublin,” he said, answering a question which I had not field. “Too far away, I am not drawn to places too far away. Also, I don’t care much for towns and cities neither. Too many people, if you ask me. I hated Galway city. Big crowds, big noise. I never understand how people can live like that. I would go stark crazy if I linger more than a day there. No sir, I don’t want to live in a city.”
“You’d get used to it in time.”
“I want none of it.”
“Aren’t you curious about the outside world?”
“Frankly speaking, no! I have no great interest in the outside world. They’ve nothing to do with me, and I’ve nothing to do with them.”
“But we are all one big world!”
“No sir. Not one world. And I don’t bother with what’s nothin’ to do with me. Too many busybodies bothering about everyone else’s business, that’s really what’s wrong with the world today. I just mind me own business, that’s all I want to do, leave others alone.
All this here,” he announced, sweeping grandly with his hand, “is my world! There’s only one lifetime a man has, enough maybe for him to get to know his little bit of the world if he be lucky, if he be blessed, God willin’,” and Paddy crossed himself.
He looked up at the sky, tilting his large head backwards. There, we saw crystallised in the bright light, a plane high up, skating gracefully across the white sky.
“That be the 12.05 flight out of Shannon, bound for Boston.”
We watched it passed a moment, its drone coming from far away. Boston. Faraway places with those strange-sounding names, but what has that to do with us, who are standing on this flat bog, earth-bound and bounded by the chains of time. This sight made me marvel at the technology of man. Products of daydreams and fantasies, improbable, farfetched, absurd.
On that day, the two of us were stranded in time, on that hot shadowless afternoon, there was no hiding place, and none at all for secrets. Under that transparency, we could only construct speech out of veracity and clarity. Paddy, the man who truly belongs, was never ill at ease, and always plain in his utterances.
“Are you married, young fella?” he asked directly, pushing out his square jaw.
“No, I am not!”
“Good for ye! Never get married, young fella, never get married,” he admonished loudly to make sure I got his message.
“Are you married yourself, Paddy?”
“Me?” he pointed a finger at his own chest. “Married? Never! Never!” he barked.
“Why is that so? There must be plenty of beautiful women in the village,” I teased.
“Why? I’ll tell you why! You see that hill over there?” He pointed. “There, on the leeside of it is me cottage. I have a field, a calf and a milch cow, which is generous with the best of white milk in the world. I have most things I need. The rest is greed. Living alone, I need very little.”
“Are you not lonely?”
“Never!” he asserted. Then, as if he had understood my overloaded question, laughed forthrightly and added, “And I can still get me a woman. There are a few who are always willin’. Now, to return to me tale. One terrible day last winter, with hailstones and a lashing wind, the hailstones large as marbles, a part of the thatch roof flew away. Oh, it went sailing in the wind like the Devil himself had willed it. The damaged roof began to leak, right over me bed. Rainwater poured down as from a hole in the sky itself. So, what did I do?”
“Well, what did you do, Paddy?”
“What did I do?” He paused for effect, before recounting, “What did I do, me son? What I did do was I shifted me bed from the leaking spot. That way, the rain no longer fell on me bed.” He waited for my appreciative laughter, then continued. “Now if I was married, I could not have done that could I? You can expect me wife pushing me and nagging me to mend the roof. Why, a man would have no peace at all until he fixes the blooming roof. Am I right or not right, young fella?”
I nodded my agreement with a laugh.
“A man will have no peace with a woman in the house, ruling the roost. Now, I admit, there are some men who would not have minded that, but yes, me son, I sure would mind that! I could not give away peace in me own home to a woman! Mark me words, if you want peace in your own home, young fella, never marry! Never, never!”
We returned to the task at hand. It soon transpired that I was fated to labour for Paddy that day. I put in some three hours of strenuous exertion which was never my intention. In the end, I stayed my course until the whole blooming pile of peat had been transferred to the shed. I was sore all over but it was never dull with Paddy regaling me with tall tales and gossip, fleshing out the landscape of the good souls who lived around Cloc Na Ron.
We finally parted company when our shadows had shrunken to the size of a football. Heading for the village, I dribbled the ball.
During the next few weeks, I encountered Paddy whenever I went to the village. Each time we would stop and talk. Conversations with Paddy were not discontinuous. Although there were gaps in time, his words fell into place like irregular pieces of a jigsaw.
Apart from cutting and selling peat, he took good care of his milch cow and calf. He was also an odd jobs man and part time postman for the village. I often saw him limping his way out of Cloc Na Ron with a canvas bag of mail slung across his shoulders.
We became good friends. And yes, I did help Paddy one more time with the peat.
Gradually, I gained a more familiarity with the landscape and some of the inhabitants. I appreciated the ever-changing hues of the hills, switching from grey to green, to bleached indigo to gold, varying almost from instant to instant. And the sea changed from black to glittering silver, and from blue to green. I noted the rocks by the shore, polished smooth by the sea-blast. I watched the clouds combed by the wind into pieces of white sculpture in the sky, and observed how the shadows of the clouds raked across the open fields and the sea’s surface, and along the sides and peaks of the hills. The rich fields of grass, and the potato patches with their boundaries of hand-piled stones, brought a palimpsest effect to this landscape of western Connemara, shadows falling on previous shadows, a shade added to bygone layers of shade. A consciousness lain on other consciousnesses that had existed earlier, displaying the affinities between the past and the present. There was crafting and merging. All the while, time nibbled. Everything.