Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight by Brian Friel
On the west coast of Ireland, there are wild, lonely places, where few visitors come. A boy on his yearly visit to his grandmother tells a tale of the simple life, when a travelling salesman from a faraway land finds a kindness he did not expect…
On the first day of every new year, I made the forty-five-mile journey by train, post van, and foot across County Donegal to my grandmother’s house. It sat at the top of a cliff above the wild and stormy Atlantic, at the very end of a village called Mullaghduff. This yearly visit, lasting from January until the end of March, was made mostly for Granny’s benefit; during these months, Grandfather went across the water to Scotland to earn enough money to keep them going for the rest of the year. But it suited me very well too: I missed school for three months, I got away from strict parents and annoying brothers and sisters, and in Granny’s house, everything I did was right.
The house consisted of one room, in which Granny and Grandfather lived and slept. It was a large room lit by a small window and a door which could be left open for most of the day, because it faced east and the winds usually blew from the west. There were three chairs, a table, a bed in the corner, and an open fire, over which stretched a long shelf. All the interesting things in the house were on this shelf – a shining silver clock, two vases, a coloured photograph of a racehorse, two lifelike wooden dogs, and three seashells sitting on matchboxes covered with red paper. Every year I went to Granny’s, these pieces were handed down to me, one by one, to be inspected, and my pleasure in them made them even more precious to Granny.
She herself was a small, round woman, who must once have been very pretty. She always wore black – a black turning grey with so much washing. But above the neck, she was a surprise of strong colour: white hair, sea-blue eyes, and a quick, fresh face, browned by the sun. When something delighted her, she had a habit of shaking her head rapidly from side to side like a child, and although she was over sixty then, she behaved like a woman half her age. She used to challenge me to race her to the garden wall or dare me to go beyond her along the rocks into the sea.
Even on the best day in summer, Mullaghduff is a lonely, depressing place. The land is rocky and bare, and Granny’s house was three miles from the nearest road. It was a strange place for a home. But Grandfather was a hard, silent man, who had married Granny when she was a girl of seventeen with a baby daughter (later to become my mother) but no husband. He probably felt he had shown enough kindness by offering to marry her, and the least she could do was accept the conditions of his offer. Or perhaps he was jealous of her prettiness and sense of fun, and thought that the wide ocean behind her and three miles of bare land in front of her would discourage any search for adventure. Whatever his reasons, he had cut her off so completely from the world that at the time of her death, soon after my thirteenth birthday, the longest journey she had ever made was to the town of Strabane, fifty-two miles away.
She and I had wonderful times together. We laughed with one another and at one another. We used to sit up talking until near midnight, and then instead of going to bed, perhaps suddenly decide to eat fish fried in butter or the eggs that were supposed to be our breakfast the next day. Or we would sit round the fire and I would read stories to her from my school reading-book – she could neither read nor write. She used to listen eagerly to these, not missing a word, making me repeat anything she did not understand. After reading, she often used to retell the story to me (‘Just to see did I understand right’).
And then suddenly she would lose interest in the world outside Mullaghduff and jump to her feet, saying, ‘Christ, son, we nearly forgot! If we run to the lower rocks, we’ll see the fishing boats from Norway going past. Hurry, son, hurry! They’re a grand sight on a fine night. Hurry!’
She had no toys or games for me to play with, but she had plenty of ideas for making my stay with her more interesting. We often got up before sunrise to see wild birds flying north through the icy air high above the ocean. Or we sat for hours on the flat rocks below her house watching the big fish attacking smaller ones in the shallow water. Or we went down to the rock pools and caught fish with our bare hands. I know now that these were all simply Granny’s ways of entertaining me, but I am also certain that she enjoyed them every bit as much as I did.
Sometimes we used to watch a great passenger ship sail past, its lights shining like stars. Granny would fill the ship with people for me: ‘The men handsome and tall, the ladies in rich silks down to their toes, and all of them laughing and dancing and drinking wine and singing. Christ, son, they’re a happy old crowd!’
There was a February storm blowing in from the sea the evening the packman fought his way uphill to our door. I watched him through the kitchen window, a tiny shape in the distance, which grew to a man, and then a man with a case as big as himself. When he was a stone’s throw from the door, I saw that he was coloured. In those days, packmen were quite common in country areas. They went from house to house with their cases of clothes and bed sheets and cheap jewellery, and if a customer had no money to buy, the packmen were usually willing to take food instead. They had a name for being dishonest.
The sight of this packman put the fear of God into me, because Mother had taught us to keep away from all packmen, and I had never seen a coloured man before in my life. I led Granny to the window and hid behind her.
‘Will he attack us?’ I whispered fearfully.
‘Christ, and if he does, we’ll attack him back!’ she said bravely and threw open the door. ‘Come in, man,’ she shouted into the storm. ‘Come in and rest, because only a fool like yourself could have made the climb up here today.’
He entered the kitchen backwards, dragging his huge case after him. He dropped into a chair near the door, gasping for breath, too exhausted to speak.
I took a step closer to examine him. He was a young man, no more than twenty, with a smooth brown skin. His head was wrapped in a snow-white turban. His shoulders were narrow, and his feet as small as my younger sister’s. Then I saw his hands. They were fine and delicate, and on the third finger of his left hand was a gold ring. It was made to look like a snake, holding a deep red stone between its mouth and its tail. As I watched, the stone seemed to change colour: now it was purple, now rose pink, now black, now blood red, now blue. I was still staring at its magic when the packman slid to his knees on the floor and began saying in a low, tuneless voice.
‘I sell beau-ti-ful things, good lady, everything for your home. What is it you buy? Silks, sheets, beau-ti-ful pictures for your walls, beau-ti-ful dresses for the lady. What is it you buy?’
As he spoke, he opened his case and removed all that it contained, painting the floor with yellows and greens and whites and blues. It seemed to me he owned all the riches of the world.
‘You buy, good lady? What is it you buy?’ He spoke without interest, without enthusiasm, too exhausted to care. His eyes never left the ground and his hands spread the splashes of colour around him until he was an island in a lake of brightness.
For a moment, Granny said nothing. There was so much to look at, and it was all so colourful, that she felt quite confused. At the same time, she was trying desperately to catch what he was saying, and his accent was difficult for her. When at last words came to her, they broke from her in a sort of cry.
‘Ah Christ, sweet Christ, look at them! Look at them! Ah God, how fine they are!’ Then rapidly to me, ‘What is he saying, son, what? Tell me what it is he’s saying.’ Then to the packman, ‘Ah Christ, mister, they’re grand things, mister, grand.’
She knelt down on the floor beside him and gently stroked the surfaces of the clothes. She was silent in amazement, and her mouth opened. Only her eyes showed her delight.
‘Try them on, good lady. Try what I have to sell.’
She turned to me to check that she had heard correctly.
‘Put on the things you like,’ I said. ‘Go on.’
She looked at the packman, searching his face to see if he was serious, afraid that he was not.
‘I have no money, Mr Packman. No money.’
The packman seemed not to hear. He went on rearranging his colours and did not look up. Only routine kept him going. ‘Try them on. They are beau-ti-ful. All.’
She hesitated over the limitless choice.
‘Go on,’ I said impatiently. ‘Hurry up.’
‘Everything for the good lady and her home,’ said the packman tiredly to the floor. ‘Try what I have to sell.’
She made a sudden movement, picking up a red dress and holding it to her chest. She looked down at it, looked to see what we thought of it, and smoothed it out against her, while her other hand pushed her hair back from her face. Then she was absolutely still, waiting for our opinion.
‘Beau-ti-ful,’ murmured the packman automatically. ‘Beautiful,’ I said, anxious to have everything tried on and finished with.
‘Beautiful,’ echoed Granny, softly, slowly. The word seemed new and strange to her.
Then suddenly she was on her feet, dancing wildly around the kitchen. ‘Christ!’ she screamed. ‘You’d make me as much of a fool as you two are. Look at me! See me in a palace, can you?’ Then she went crazy. She threw the dress on the floor, and tried on one thing after another – a green hat and then white gloves and then a blue jacket, all the time singing or dancing or waving her arms, all the time shaking her head, delighted, ashamed, drunk with pleasure.
But soon she grew tired and threw herself, exhausted, on the bed. ‘Now, mister, you can take all the damn things away,’ she said breathlessly, ‘because I have no money to buy anything.’ Again, the packman did not hear her, but said tiredly, ‘This you like, good lady.’ He opened a tiny box, and inside lay six little silver spoons. ‘The box to you, good lady, for half price.’
‘Shut your mouth!’ she cried, with sudden bitterness, sitting up on the bed. ‘Be quiet, Packman! We are poor people here! We have nothing!’
The packman’s head bent lower to the ground and he started to gather his things, ready to go out into the darkness.
At once, she was sorry for her bad temper. She jumped off the bed and began building up the fire. ‘You’ll eat with us, Packman, you’ll be hungry. We can offer you…’ She paused and turned to me. ‘Christ, son, we’ll cook the goose that was to be Sunday’s dinner! That’s what we’ll do!’ She turned to the packman. ‘Can your stomach hold a good big meal, Packman?’
‘Anything, good lady. Anything.’
‘A good big meal it’ll be, then, and Sunday be damned!’
She took out knives and forks from a drawer. ‘Tell me, Packman, what do they call you, what?’
‘Singh,’ he said.
‘Singh,’ he repeated.
‘Christ, but that’s a strange name. Sing. Sing,’ she said, feeling the sound on her tongue. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll call you, Packman. I’ll call you Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight! A good big mouthful. Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight!’
‘Yes,’ he said, quietly accepting her name for him.
‘Now, Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight, go to sleep for an hour, and when I call you, there’ll be a good meal before your eyes. Close your eyes and sleep, you poor exhausted man, you.’
He closed his eyes obediently and in five minutes, his head had fallen on his chest.
We ate by the light of an oil lamp. It must have been a month since the packman had last eaten, because he ate fast, like a wild animal, and did not lift his eyes until his plate was cleared. Then he sat back in his seat and smiled at us for the first time. ‘Thank you, good lady,’ he said. ‘A beautiful meal.’
‘You’re welcome,’ she said. ‘Where do you come from, Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight?’
‘The Punjab,’ he said.
‘And where might that be?’
‘India, good lady.’
‘India,’ she repeated. ‘Tell me, is India a hot country, is it?’
‘Very warm. Very warm and very poor.’
‘Very poor,’ she said quietly, adding the detail to the picture she was making in her mind. And oranges and bananas grow there on trees, and the fruit and flowers have all the colours of the rainbow in them?’
‘Yes,’ he said simply, remembering his own picture. ‘It is very beau-ti-ful, good lady. Very beau-ti-ful.’
‘And the women,’ Granny went on, ‘do they wear long silk dresses to the ground? And the men, are the men dressed in purple trousers, and black shoes with silver buckles?’
He spread his hands in front of him and smiled.
And the women walk under the orange-trees with the sunlight in their hair, and the men raise their hats to them as they pass… in the sun… in the Punjab… in the Garden of Eden…’
She was away from us as she spoke, leaving us in the bare kitchen, listening to the wind beating on the roof and the ocean crashing below us. The packman’s eyes were closed.
‘The Garden of Eden,’ said Granny again. ‘Where the land isn’t bare and so rocky that nothing will grow in it. And you have God’s sun in that Punjab place and there is singing and the playing of music and the children… yes, the children…’ The first drops of rain came down the chimney and made the fire spit.
‘Christ!’ she said, jumping to her feet. ‘Up you get, you fools, you, and let me wash the dishes.’
The packman woke with a start, and bent to pick up his case. ‘And where are you going?’ she shouted to him. ‘Christ, man, a wild animal wouldn’t be out on a night like this! You’ll sleep here tonight. There – in front of the fire. Like a cat,’ she added, with a shout of laughter. The packman laughed too.
By the time we had washed the dishes, it was bedtime. Granny and I undressed quickly in the shadowy end of the room, and jumped into the big bed which we always shared.
‘Blow out the lamp, Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight,’ said Granny, ‘and then place yourself on the floor there. You’ll find a bit of carpet near the door if you want to lie on that.’
‘Good night, good lady,’ he said. ‘Very good lady.’
‘Good night, Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight,’ she replied.
He put the old piece of carpet in front of the fire and stretched himself out on it. Outside, the rain beat against the roof, and inside, the three of us were comfortable and warm.
It was a fine morning the next day. The packman looked young and bright, and his case seemed lighter too. He stood outside the door, smiling happily, as Granny directed him towards the villages where he would have the best chance of selling his things. Then she wished him goodbye, in the old Irish way.
‘God’s speed,’ she said, ‘and may the road rise with you.’
‘To pay you I have no money, good lady,’ he said, ‘and my worthless things I would not offer you, because ‘Go, man, go. There’ll be rain before dinnertime.’
The packman still hesitated. He kept smiling like a shy girl.
‘Christ, Mr Sing My Heart’s Delight, if you don’t go soon, you’ll be here for dinner and you ate it last night!’
He put his case on the ground and looked at his left hand. Then, taking off the ring with his long, delicate fingers, he held it out to her. ‘For you,’ he said very politely. ‘Please accept from me… I am grateful.’
Even as it lay on his hand, the stone changed colour several times. It had been so long since Granny had been offered a present that she did not know how to accept it. She bent her head and whispered, ‘No. No. No.’
‘But please, good lady. Please,’ the packman insisted. ‘From a Punjab gentleman to a Donegal lady. A present. Please.’
When she did not come forward to accept it, he moved towards her and took her left hand in his. He chose her third finger and put the ring on it. ‘Thank you, good lady,’ he said.
Then he lifted his case, and turned towards the main road. The wind was behind him and carried him quickly away.
Neither of us moved until we could no longer see him. I turned to go round to the side of the house; it was time to feed the chickens and milk the cow. But Granny did not move. She stood looking towards the road with her arm and hand still held as the packman had left them.
‘Come on, Granny,’ I said crossly. ‘The cow will think we’re dead.’
She looked strangely at me, and then away from me and across the road and up towards the mountains in the distance.
‘Come on, Granny,’ I said again, pulling at her dress.
As she let me lead her away, I heard her saying to herself, ‘I’m thinking the rain will get him this side of Crolly bridge, and then his purple trousers and silver-buckled shoes will be destroyed. Please God, it will be a fine day. Please God it will.