Nan pauses before the narrow red doorway. It calls up a long-ago nervousness, or maybe it’s a current apprehension that she is failing to quell. The door opens into a box of a porch that protrudes from the side of the single-storey community centre. ‘Chin up’ her mother had always said as they approached that door in the days. The mantra had reassured and the focus on the physical had calmed. She used to march on in, she remembers, though never risking a backward glance. That advice serves her now. Face set determined and chin firmly up, she crosses that once familiar threshold.
There is only a scatter of committee members and organisers in the hall. The polished wooden floor reflects recessed lights above, engendering inhospitable luminosity. Chairs scrape harshly into place, voices echo hollow, the sound system screeches before being tamed. She makes for the front row at the foot of the stage, taking a seat to one end. She plays stern, staring to the front, marking out an unwillingness to engage. She puts the poster over her lap, folded under her scarf.
The old school had been gutted when it made way for the community centre. A warren of rooms hollowed out and transformed into one elongated hall, with modern facilities tucked into converted outhouses. One hundred years a school, already forty a community centre, and still it retains that capacity to instil foreboding in her. A longevity in it to be admired, she acknowledges, better still, a longevity with evolving purpose.
She can sense a rise in ambient clatter and a new timbre to the babble, as the hall begins to fill. She does not look round. Little bursts of conversation break clear from the surrounding clamour. The weather, the children, the fine efforts of the Harbour Festival Committee. Polite, formulaic, self-satisfied. An air of expectation hovers, the Taoiseach presiding formally is no everyday occurrence. She is unnerved with no sign of Dinny or Edith. A step too far for them she speculates.
They are known as the rebels, the three of them, down in the club. It’s a matter of context. To be a rebel at the ‘Young at Heart’ club does not stretch much beyond sitting to one side and moaning, offering irritable commentary. When dominoes, light yoga, and bingo are presented as the nirvana of an active old age, it’s hard not to be a rebel. Yet, there are only the three of them.
Dinny wants them to make something of the club, but imagination fails them. He’s an unlikely rebel with his determination to be agreeable. Too many years spent as a bartender, he says, a mode ingrained and hard to change. He’s a great one for the chat, without much worry as to topic or company. There’s a mischief under it all, however, that brings him to their table. It was Dinny that lit the flame on their timeworn fuse, just two days previous.
He had arrived at the club seething with an indignation that he had nursed alone since the early hours. He could scarcely contain the splutter as he drew a chair in close. It was to do with the farmers on the radio that morning, was all they could make out. It had taken a cup of tea to take the garble out of him. A farmers’ association leader, claiming climate change as a livelihood issue for his members, had deemed it merely a lifestyle issue for the general public. Dinny has children and grandchildren in Australia that were chased out of house and home by the fires. Farmers, apparently, are ready to reduce emissions but won’t accept reduction in the numbers of the animals doing the emitting. It’s always someone else or somewhere else has to act, Dinny had fumed impotently.
Nan has always been a fighter, predictably rebellious. It had come with the terrain of social worker. She could claim advocate, campaigner, even agitator for her CV. There was a steel to her in those days, unforgiving and unrelenting in seeking fairness. She had been a champion tilter at windmills. Nowadays, though she would not admit to it, that steel is dulled. Powerlessness in the face of potent self-interest demobilises over time. Hopelessness breeds where change is forever limited to false dawns.
She had been unable to share Dinny’s indignation. His story had just further twisted that knot of despair. It wasn’t for herself, nor did she have family left. She just didn’t want to leave the world a worse place than she had entered it. Actually, she had wanted to leave it a better place, but ambition had faltered. She could still feed indignation in others, giving it life with the vestiges of her retained anger. The dishonesty and danger in such dissembling by the farmers had to be challenged, she had vented vigorously.
Edith is the cautious rebel, always measured and rational. A discipline she had demanded of others over long years, and one she still practiced with some severity. Neither indignation nor anger in her response to provocation, only reason and analysis. Sharp and well read, the teacher still strong in her, she is moved by the science. She had offered monotonous detail on methane emission levels and herd numbers as companion to Dinny’s aggravation and Nan’s anger. The confidence and authority might have waned, but not the intellect. It was Edith who resolved their bewilderment as to what could be done.
She had spotted the Taoiseach that morning, up on the point beyond the woods. He had come strolling past as she marched out her daily circuit. All casual with a scrappy baseball cap, smiling and talking to, what seemed to her, a bodyguard. Further inquiry on her return to the village uncovered that he was staying over to launch the Harbour Festival. There is an opportune proximity to power with a Taoiseach’s holiday residence nearby. Escape from pointless diversions had beckoned them.
A shuffling quiet descends on the hall. A quick glance over her shoulder reveals a flurry of dignitaries from the festival committee by the entrance. The Taoiseach is arriving. Nan calls up that fighter of old, needing pure steel now, for being on her own. She pushes herself upright. Her chair rocks back, falling with inconvenient clatter. She can feel the sudden attention of the crowd, a weight on her shoulders. She walks slowly over to the steps up to the stage, mounting each one with the care that recurrent falls motivate. She faces the gathering, alone and centre-stage, unfolding her poster.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… Taoiseach, what gives you the right to destroy our planet?
Puzzled murmurings gain edge. ‘Come off it, Nan, this is no time for such nonsense’. Patronising looks of bemusement and pity from neighbours. ‘Get off the stage, Greta, you’re too old for this game.’ A spatter of laughter swells across the hall. She stares grimly ahead. Disconcerted dignitaries circle their guest at the entrance. She recognises that embarrassed smile and balding head well from the television. ‘Get the guards to deal with her, she’ll disgrace us all’. Puzzled and patronising is turning angry.
She doesn’t notice Dinny sidling his way nervously towards the stage, tight along the wall. He presents a twisted grin in her direction on arrival, with an anxious glance out over the crowd. She smiles, partly to welcome and reassure, partly to disguise her own discomfort. He crosses his Rubicon, knowing there will be no return to previous ways, given the swirling belligerence. He is doing it for the children. His poster is stretched wide.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… Taoiseach, I do fear the evil in your failure to curtail emission levels
The Old Testament was Dinny’s idea. He thought the vintage feel suited Third Age Rebels, his new sobriquet for the group. This was a language that would inspire awe, he had argued. It would grab people, calling up the old god of creation to defend them at a moment of catastrophe. Convinced, they had wondered at his startling reincarnation as prophet.
Two gardaí shuffle awkwardly onto the stage. Young lads, fresh down from Bandon to mind the Taoiseach. There is patronising entreaty. ‘You’ve your point made now, well made, but time to come down off the stage.’ The gardaí hover around them, strangely reluctant to intervene more forcefully. They turn to cajoling threats, under pressure of a Taoiseach on hold. ‘A night in the cells won’t do you any good now would it?’ Nan and Dinny relish an unexpected power. They sense that hesitancy in the gardaí, an inability to engage with them physically due to their supposed frailty.
Edith surprises them with her arrival on stage, an imposing confidence in her calculated stride. The crowd watches, curious for the role this abrupt addition to the drama might play in saving the village from shame. That múinteoir of old is recaptured as this attention focuses on her, authority and calm in every deliberate movement. The reaction is disbelief then baying animosity, as she hoists and unfolds a third poster.
The fear of the lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and instruction… Taoiseach, you ignore the scientists and give credence to the self-interested at our peril
The words might be Dinny’s, but the meticulous calligraphy that ensured legibility had been Edith’s, with Nan providing the energy that had driven them on. The ‘Young at Heart’ club had finally garnered relevance and potency. Bingo numbers shouted out around them, cards being marked. Protest had been crafted and imprinted in the huddle over their table. ‘House’ or ‘Line’ called, celebration of completed or partially completed Bingo cards. They had fine-tuned purpose and plan in their corner. Shadows cast by the expectations placed on old age had been shrugged off.
They spot the Taoiseach again, putting his head around the entrance before ducking back out. The pressure on stage intensifies with committee members joining the gardaí to talk them down. The commotion at the entrance builds, with comings and goings in search of a solution. Disquiet roils through the impatient crowd.
The Third Age rebels stand firm, there is no further plan. Legs are tiring, arms failing. Beyond ensuring the Taoiseach would not share a stage with antiquated hostility, the committee don’t know what to do. Faces are redder, expostulations more vigorous. The crowd gradually shifts towards reluctant appreciation of an unlikely challenge posed and the stand-off achieved. An effective rebel will always hold some standing in their town.
The Harbour Festival is best launched from the nearby quayside, given the warmth of the evening, it is decided. Power re-asserts narrative and direction. The sound system is whisked out, the audience ushered towards the new venue. The stairs off the stage are blocked by the two gardaí. Time passes. Turning deflated, the trio sit uncomfortably on the floor. Taoiseach, dignitaries and audience are retired to various pubs and hotels along the village. The gardaí remain, awaiting instruction they insist, relishing reasserted authority.
Nan affects denial. ‘He saw us up there with the posters, he got the message.’ Experience, with its attendant pessimism, overwhelms pretence. ‘Sure, I know, he’s off up there now, laughing about it all with his posh pals. Not even a thought for changing his ways.’ Yet another windmill takes a toll, but the anger is renewed.
Dinny manifests optimism. ‘I thought we had them with us there at the end, you know.’ Determined positivity cannot withstand survey of the empty hall. ‘When it comes to the crunch, though, it’s mé féin all the way isn’t it?’ He looks from one to the other for a solution, now with felt urgency.
Edith acknowledges limitations. ‘We were never going to do more than create a stir.’ She laughs at the memory of the catcalls at Nan about Greta Thunberg, but is piqued by the mantle. ‘There’s lots we can do, we’ve a contribution to make. We’ll do better next time.’ Insight is reinforced with newly forged steel.
Niall Crowley is an independent consultant and believer in equality and human rights, working in Ireland and places across Europe. He is part of a prose collective in West Cork, a space that stimulates a passion long forgotten but returning to life. He is author of ‘Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel’, published by A&A Farmar in 2010, a story of public policy sabotage.