from Cadenza

Context N°17

by Ralph Cusack

An inspired combination of mordant Proustian reverie and uproarious comic routine, Ralph Cusack’s Cadenza has suffered unjust neglect since its publication in 1958.

Cusack was a painter and horticulturalist: Cadenza was his only novel. Unsure of how to sell such an odd book, his first publishers marketed it as an improbable autobiography. Though praised by a handful of critics—including fellow writer/painter J. P. Donleavy—the book was reviled for its quirks and quickly consigned to the remainder bins. Cadenza defies easy characterization even to sympathetic eyes, but the quality of Cusack’s writing puts him indisputably in the company of fellow countrymen Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien.


Smashing the cheap teacup with one blow of his fist, he stuffed the resultant crocks, unbroken handle and all, gently but firmly into my mouth.

With his freshly washed soapsmelling fingers he then adjusted the pieces so that they lined and filled every cranny, using the handle and its still attached fragment of curve to pin backwards and downwards the tip of my tongue and the larger curved morsels to arch in my palate.

Although it was now quite impossible to close my mouth completely, he insisted on my closing it sufficiently to prevent the twenty-three pieces falling out on the floor, telling me to come back in two hours.

I looked at my watch: it was just half past ten and a clear sunny morning in May. It was a pity, all the same, I had nowhere to hide.

He had said it was better to keep to the side streets, as of course in such case it was essential to keep my mouth shut both physically and metaphorically or people might ask questions and I should be lost or discovered. Normally I should have gravitated to the nearest pub and, skulking in a dark corner, lowered a few mediums; but, alas, I was debarred now from this as the crockery could not be taken out and I was afraid if left in I might swallow it down along with the dark silky porter.

Closing the heavy door silently behind me I glanced right and then left in the wide sunny street and seeing a loquacious acquaintance, a poet of some standing, slouching towards me, made off at such speed as my trembling legs would carry me to the right, pursued by his peculiarly loud and raucous shouts now mercifully being diminished by distance:

‘Hey! Come here you! What are yez up to at all? Come here, damn ye . . . I want a loan . . . (more distant) . . . a small loan . . . (still further) . . . God’s curse on ye anyhow!’

Luckily an alleyway turned off again right, a place ill-lit by day or after dark, used in the one for stocking shops on the main thoroughfare through trap- and back-doors and in the other for the surreptitious meetings of forbidden lovers. For all lovers were of course forbidden unless they were well enough off to ride to hounds, attend hunt-balls in country houses, breed, own, or train racehorses, contribute handsomely to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, know the right people to drink with in the Shelbourne Rooms, Buttery, Russell, or Dolphin, exhibit themselves regularly in the Right Theatre’s stalls, wear fainnes . . .

Such garbled ruminations, however, were my very first undoing, for instanter I had stepped on vicious air and landed a good three feet below on a piled gross of boxes of artificial finnan-haddy oozing orange dye. The place smelt of dead wood, the said finnan-haddy, and cats. In the process I had skinned my right foreshin, trousers and all, on the sharp metal edge of the turned back thick-glazed trap and a ribbon of cloth hanging forward and down as I trod on its tail now impeded my flight. For I was up in a trice belching back my crocks from mid-gullet, and away on, looking more where I was going and less into my head.

At the end of the alleyway it was right again into the old mews once peopled by horses with their brakes, dog-carts, vis-à-vis, shandrydans, barouches, Victorias, and the odd private coach; now stabling those on the run from society, short of cash, full of money.

I had friends there too and rapidly debated whether to keep close under the wall to the right where most windows were muffed, risking thus a familiar knock-knowledged door being opened in my path all too soon, or stalk upright undisguised directly past the acetylene welders, eggsporters, arty furniture dives, disused billiard rooms, and spent kips on the sunny opposite side.

I chose the former and was instantaneously rewarded by a turquoise door, numbered 26a in white, painted primrose yellow (for I knew it) on the inside, being opened in my face.

Choking back the crockery I stood still, as Moore on his plinth always did and does, and allowed the refugee from war and all else to throw out her toothwater and tampax tube, take a deep sighing breath of polluted spring air and retire. She was one of those people who look better out of her clothes than in the over-rural tweeds she affected in the city, whilst the same was the case for high heels on the bog: but her body was beautiful.

I then shuffled on until I stumbled over a pair of sad-trousered reversed male legs tipped by good shoes, all splayed in my way: my friend the abortionist, lying on his stomach tinkering with his coach-housed car, endeavoring to retrieve with the lasso of his pseudo-stethoscope some bolt or nut which had scooted too far under its oil-sodden carcass for even his hands to lay hold. Before he could get up, cracking his head on the differential case, filling thus his unctuous hair in approximately equal proportions with a mixture of burnt oil and the assorted muds of all twenty-six counties, I was again on my way and slid stealthily into yet another alley, still right, where the delectable bins of a high-classy restaurant were often besieged by the gastronome cats of the neighborhood and where, Lord be praised, I had sometimes supped myself.

I was just about to dispute with a big tabby-tom the rejected remains of a copious fine dish when I remembered the crockery, averted my eyes, tottered on at a teetering trot.

Crouching below the walls of the crockery-monger’s still used mews, its ampelopsis still light green, unsullied by soot, I decided I had had enough of this damned alliteration and put it back in my head for later use.

So I almost strode to the shadow of the clock-arch of the maternity hospital (which struck something), I nodded to my friend the real impecunious doctor, his kind Jewish wife and five kids (an action which almost trisected my tongue) and slipped up the wide road through the hop-scotch players to the fine hawthorn-scented square.

The sun shone kindly on my purple bloated face; sweet bunches of clouds stood still in the pale blue sky; four delicious large drops of pearly water fell off a pendant lilac down my aching neck.

And I thought of Mrs. N.

I was there again all right some summer or such a similar summer or spring. The last time I had visited her she had thought I was my grandmother with her copious dirty-white hair hiding combs galore and most of the Bible by heart. We had discussed at great length many people long dead of whom I had scarcely ever heard and never even seen but in yellowed ageing image or not even that. Indeed a good many of them had probably never existed. But Mrs. N. and I soon put them in their places on the fading map and came to the conclusion that apart from having quite obviously married the wrong men, we had made many another lamentable and irretrievable mistake, for example in our dressing and deportment that day we were presented to the Old Queen during the garden party at the Viceregal lodge.

It was pleasant enough for a time to be translated in epoch and sex and very often afterwards we played this rare game; until I became so convinced when in her company that I was indeed Lizzie that inexorably I was drawn into overacting the part, and one fine sad day could not overcome the temptation of a visit to Gings, the theatrical outfitters, on the way.

On appearing at Mrs. N.’s in what I was convinced was the spitting-image garb of my granny—hair locket, pince-nez, starched cuffs, wig, reticule and all—you can imagine my chagrin when she greeted me affectionately by the nickname of my own eldest son.

On that dreadful occasion I was compelled, to my great embarrassment, to carry on a lengthy discussion on his father, and I do not really know whom I maligned most, my son or myself, although I am often if not always polite and try to avoid telling lies.

But I had to admit that Daddy and his wife were both too fond of the bottle, indeed Yes; that Daddy made too many obviously unnecessary trips both to London and Paris; was too fond of young girls, even schoolgirls . . . (And here I blushed, I must say, for I wondered how on earth it was that he (but of course it was she) ever got it into his head to think of that.)

On top of all this Daddy bought far too many rare plants and bulbs for his garden, squandering money thus far better applied to his farm; should never have given up tennis and grown fat; subscribed to far too many newspapers and periodicals which he could not possibly read (I did, I mean I do, read them all); was getting gross, lazy, and too fond of good food; and avoided by all ruses he could think of visiting Mrs. N. and her family, which, as it so happened I was there, I denied very stoutly.

Having braced myself as best I could with ten drops of Maria Theresa Koelnischwasser to a teaspoonful of multi-coloured coffee-sugar, both mercifully available on her side-table and of which she took no notice, being addicted that way herself, we then went on to a lengthy and detailed discussion of my then living father, his grandfather, whose morals (according to my part for my son) seemed scarcely any better than my own, my father and son’s grandfather having died, according to Mrs. N.’s rather too circumstantial evidence, some years before.

Lowering her voice Mrs. N. then began to speak of my son’s sweet children; but this essay into the future was too much for me entirely and picking up my skirts I took forthwith my leave, changed my clothes in the lobby bathroom and, my gladstone bag gripped firmly, left.

Momentarily not knowing who I was, I most mistakenly went to the match at Lansdowne Road (my son being a keen rugger man), had a terrible struggle back through the turnstiles to arrive late at the weekly concert of the Friends of the National Collection of Musicians and missing the Mozart Quintet, which I loved, had to sit through a boring Bliss. In the future, I said to myself, you must keep your feet more firmly planted on the ground in space as well as time . . .

But that was all very well. Now I thought: the very thing: Mrs. N. will surely save me, crockery and all: for this time and place I would as soon be out of; I shall go and see her; she will just be up, fresh from her accurate dreams, ready for her hazy day.

It was a little nerve-wracking though: supposing, just supposing (and sooner or later it was bound to happen) she mistook me for myself! Even if it could not be called recognition, what then? Should I break down and accuse her, for once, of being mistaken? . . . Bark out loudly that I wished to know nothing of him for of a certainty he was up to no good? Or, scraping out the crockery, embrace her as myself?

Any harbour in a hurricane, I thought, and jumped on the tram for the Zoo. It was not long, however, before I realized my mistake and inadvertently transgressing the enameled injunction not to spit either in or on the car, dribbled a salivated whine of anguish from the corner of my mouth where the round base of the smashed cup, still almost intact, left a narrow gap to the outer air.

I slapped on the bell, clattered down the stairs and landed forninst the Rotunda. Hastily crossing the street I reversed my trolley, making sure this time I was in the ten not the nine, and duly arrived, partly on foot, at the beautifully proportioned carved sandstone fluted pillars (painted to imitate granite) and fine teak door (grained to resemble oak) and the elegant brasswork and knocker (chromiumed to emulate silver) and the former fine fanlight (removed to eliminate dusting and now safe in Sheepstown, Mo.) of number sixty-seven.

‘Is Mrs. N. at home?’ I managed to mumble, an idiot but polite question, for except to go abroad she had hardly left the house since the Civil War, and Martha the maid, not since the Boer, when her lover had sailed with his horse from the North Wall never to return.

‘Indeed and she is, sir,’ mumbled Martha. ‘Come in, sir, Come in.’

In the furtive dark hall with its worn sunk doormat and heavy brass rail, its immense mahogany table with its visiting cards on the old brass French tray, its faded Millais etchings and G. F. Watts in milk-chocolate aqua, I was besieged by fear. Who was I to be?

Never mind: it was too late.

I was shown into the upper front drawing-room in its exquisite faded blue and fly-blown yellowed white-and-gold. There sat Mrs. N. nibbling a Marie biscuit and sipping her long cooled coffee, crumbs of one and drops of the other falling alternately onto the first folio of Redouté’s Roses lying open and half toppling off her narrow lady’s lap: lent of course, and illegally, by the Provost.

She looked up: here it was.

‘My dear Melchi. How nice it is to see you! It’s such ages since you called; and how is dear Hetty?’

I was saved. My Uncle Melchizedek had died some years before and Hetty his wife decades before that. We had always called him Melchi for short.

In gratefulness I opened my mouth wide to answer her, but shut it again like a trap just in time, adroitly imprisoning the tips of the crockery between my clenched gums, the base and handle-piece alone falling softly to the dirty bearskin rug, where Finn McCool the poor old rheumatic mastiff sniffed and spurned them.

Entirely unabashed or surprised by such earthy phenomena Mrs. N. reached for the brocade bellpull with her elegant veinedivory hand and when Martha appeared asked her for a basin.

In due course she came, one of the larger Meissen finger-bowls on a crocheted mat on a palekh tray, a large leaf of Lippia citriodorus floating on the kitcheny water.

Into this I carefully placed my remaining twenty-one pieces, picking up the fugitive two from the floor. They sank to the bottom leaving a visible scum of dog- and bear-hair, dust and bubbly saliva next the sweet-scented leaf.

This was fine.

‘Don’t forget to remind me to put those things in again when I am going,’ I said, with the joy of speech regained, ‘or the crockery merchant will be very much upset.’

‘Ah, my poor Melchi,’ said Mrs. N. ‘What dreadful things they do to us these days. And such cheap vulgar china too; not like the time of the Valentines whist-drive. Indeed No.’

But I left her to go on, knowing nothing of that party, if party it was, and picked up the Redouté from the floor where it had fallen, brushing off as best I could with the back of my cuff the pawmarks of the dog and my own shoe.

So I left her to go on and soon I was with her though I had not played this part before, but knew some of the cues and a line here and there well enough. We were off again to Western Argyll, to that cold sea-loch, facing, but cut off from, the distant Firth by its fjord-like length; half fresh, half brackish water; burn-brown in color after heavy summer rain.

The trouble was the overlap. For a score of years I had lived there too with dear Uncle Melchi and all our brood, and a gnawing premonition warned me that at any moment, certain sure, we should once again (this time through the valiant person of Melchi my nearest and dearest old Uncle) be discussing my infant, childhood, or adolescent self, a prospect that filled me with horror.

At the moment, however, all was serene.

We were enjoying the time of the water-paper-chase to Loch Long and how I (Uncle Melchi) had smoked the tea-kettles by lazily building too much dried seaweed into the fires (though of course it did help to keep off those frightful midges) and then cut my finger so badly while splitting and oatmealing the mackerel we had caught on the way out that I had been unable to row on the way home and poor Hetty had had to take an oar, which had likely been the beginning of her angina; and that anyway by going too far we were much too late with the children, although of course they had loved the phosphorescence on the way back and slept so soundly, mesmerized by watching the green-flamed drops running from the momentarily uplifted oarblades until awakened by that disgraceful caterwauling of ‘A boat a boat unto the ferry’ and that dreadful man Duffy (Was it Duffy? Such a name) reciting his vulgar version of Lord Ullin’s Daughter. And how Mother (Whose mother? I rather apprehensively wondered) had made them all sing ‘Speed bonnie boat’ and ‘The Noble Earl of Moray’ to cheer them up and stop them whimpering and sniveling all the way home.

Which reminded her, Indeed Yes, of that day of the sports at the Osprey’s Falls in Glen Mor (the little one) when it rained so heavily that she thought we might as well shelter under the falls, and the drenching sacks in the sackrace with all its false starts had given the children the most frightful colds, as Mother (Whose mother?) had insisted that the girls put their skirts outside their sacks as it was not decent otherwise and too like boys; and of course Dr. Shearwater was no use at all and never prescribed anything but steamed tripe and two drops of laudanum on a lump of sugar at bed-time with senna-pod tea in the morning. Which reminded her of course (Oh heavens, here it was, short-circuited) of how that disgraceful Nurse Pettigrew had given that poor child nothing but laudanum, gripe-water, and gruel for years and years and no wonder he had grown up so weakly and eccentric and died so very young. Indeed No . . .

At this point I decided not to listen any longer for the child was myself and I thought I was alive . . .

‘But what could you expect?’ continued Mrs. N., ‘with his father so addicted to the bottle and his mother so neurotic with her German glass eye. He was doomed from the start for he never had a chance. Was he burled with the others in St. Fintans . . . ?’

‘Excuse me, Mrs. N.,’ I said, getting up. ‘I am afraid I must be off . . . Excuse me, I must go . . .’ And I stuffed the crockery back as best I could into my freshly constricted mouth, only wishing I had a shoe-horn or a glove-stretcher to help me.

‘Good-bye, dear Melchi. Do come again quite soon and we’ll have a good talk . . .’

But I was off.

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