The quiet darkness was disturbed by the sound of a chainsaw in the distance. Someone working early? Peering at the clock, it was 4.10 am and even were it a summer morning, chainsaws in south Dublin are not plentiful. The chainsaw drew nearer; a moped or two stroke motorcycle with a broken silencer going down the dual carriageway. Maybe a bartender going home after a long night’s work; maybe someone heading to the start of an early shift.
For a moment, the idea that it might have been a chainsaw seemed attractive; a sound from childhood days, a sound from reassuring times when the world seemed safe.
What other noises remained from the years when anything was possible?
My dad’s car pulling onto the gravel beside our house when he got home from work. The bleating of sheep as they ran to the gate at feeding time. A Land Rover turning in the entrance to the lane that passed the side of our house. A tractor and trailer rattling over the unmade surface, heading for work in a field. A neighbour calling his dog as they walked down the road in the evening time. The sound of children’s voices as they headed home before darkness. The night brought its own sounds: the crack of a shotgun marking the end of a rabbit; the hooting of a barn owl; the barking of dogs spooked by a passing disturbance.
The sounds multiplied as they came to mind; each coming back as clearly as in decades past. They were secure sounds; they were sounds of a world in which people were safe; in which the world was unchanged, unthreatened.
The words of Charlotte Mew’s Old Shepherd’s Prayer came back. It is the sounds that prompt the old farmer’s moment of contemplation; turning towards the window, in his mind’s eye, he sees the business of life on a rustic Saturday.
Up to the bed by the window, where I be lyin’,
Comes bells and bleat of the flock wi’ they two children’s clack.
Over, from under the eaves there’s the starlings flyin’,
And down in yard, fit to burst his chain, yapping out at Sue
I do hear young Mac.
Turning around like a falled-over sack
I can see team plowin’ in Whithy-bush field
and meal carts startin’ up road to Church-Town;
Saturday afternoon the men goin’ back
And the women from market, trapin’ home over the down.
Heavenly Master, I wud like to wake to they same green places
Where I be know’d for breakin’ dogs and follerin’ sheep.
And if I may not walk in th’ old ways and look on th’ old faces
I wud sooner sleep.
Mew died in 1928, but her vision of West Country life was not so different from fifty years later. Maybe her sentiments would find favour in communities changed from a generation past.
Maybe her theology is not good, but if heaven is not a place where your dad comes home at the end of the day; if it is not a place where there is work to be done and friends to be greeted; if it not a place of barking dogs and children’s shouts; then I would sooner sleep.