A Song

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Saturday December 18, 2004, The Guardian

Noel was the driver that weekend in Clare, the only musician among them who did not drink. They were going to need a driver; the town was, they believed, too full of eager students and eager tourists; the pubs were impossible. For two or three nights they would aim for empty country pubs or private houses. Noel played the tin whistle with more skill than flair, better always accompanying a large group than playing alone. His singing voice, however, was special, even though it had nothing of the strength and individuality of his mother's voice, known to all of them from one recording made in the early seventies. He could, on the other hand, do perfect harmony with anybody, moving a fraction of an octave above or below, roaming freely around the other voice, no matter what sort of voice it was. He did not have an actual singing voice, he used to joke, he had an ear, and in that small world it was agreed that his ear was flawless.

On the Sunday night the town had grown unbearable. Most visitors were, his friend George said, the sort of people who would blissfully spill pints over your uileann pipes. And even some of the better known country pubs were too full of outsiders for comfort. Word had spread, for example, of the afternoon session at Kielty's in Millish, and now that the evening was coming in, it was his job to rescue two of his friends and take them from there to a private house on the other side of Ennis where they would have peace to play.

As soon as he entered the pub, he saw in the recess by the window one of them playing the melodion, the other the fiddle, both acknowledging him with the tiniest flick of the eyes and a sharp knitting of the brow. A crowd had gathered around them, two other fiddlers and a young woman playing the flute. The table in front of them was laden down with full and half-full pint glasses.

Noel stood back and looked around him before going up to the bar to get a soda water and lime; the music had brightened the atmosphere of the pub so that even the visitors, including those who knew nothing about the music, had a strange glow of contentment and ease.

He saw one of his other friends at the bar waiting for a drink and nodded calmly to him before telling him that they would soon be moving on. His friend agreed to come with them.

"Don't tell anyone where we're going," Noel said.

As soon as they could decently leave, he thought, and it might be an hour or more, he would drive them across the countryside, as though in flight from danger.

His friend, once he had been served, edged slowly towards him, a full pint of lager in his hand.

"I see you are on the lemonade," he said with a sour grin. "Would you like another?"

"It's soda water and lime," Noel said. "You couldn't afford it."

"I had to stop playing," his friend said. "It got too much. We should move when we can. Is there much drink in the other place?"

"You"re asking the wrong man," Noel said, guessing that his friend had been drinking all afternoon.

"We can get drink on the way," his friend said.

"I'm ready to go when the boys are," Noel said, nodding his head in the direction of the music.

His friend frowned and sipped his drink, and then looked up, searching Noel's face for a moment, and then glancing around before moving closer to him so that he could not be heard by anyone else.

"I'm glad you're on the soda water. I suppose you know that your mother is here."

"I do all right," Noel said, smiling. "There'll be no beer tonight."

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