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Fir to Middling

Brian Coney

11 - 21 May


Fir to Middling

Written piece by Brian Coney inspired by Geordie Barnett.

"Tara devoted creatures.” A peaked cap above a piercing stare. From the corner where he usually sat, Geordie Barnett eyed four jackdaws that had gathered on damp firewood outside. “They rarely separate, such is the time they invest in each other,” he said, closing his eyes. “Wheesht,”—catching himself—“you’d have as much luck keeping aphids and buchnera aphidicola apart.”

Geordie thought his hillside home big and empty and in an awful plight, but it looked blest in an autumn tint of gold. With a warmth reserved for greeting the best of old friends, he shot up. “Would you look at thon? A wee skitter if I ever saw one.” On the moss-caked sill, a robin pecked at suet slowly deferring to dew. “I’d say he’s right and hungry but content in his way,” he added, slowly sitting back down. “Och, the wee crater altogether.”

Usually in the gloaming, wee Geordie was want to tell guests that he was “just the second of nine childer”. As fit as his fiddle at 70, he was as keen to note that he was only “wee” because his father was Big Geordie. “He’ll be gone 15 years next month, God rest him,” he told me, his gaze flitting between firewood and the sill. “My mother, God rest her, a bit longer.” A pause was only broken by the sad hiss of a kitchen stove. “Aye, a quare bit longer now.”

As hoarfrost dusted the birchwood and the daws retired to a dark copse across the way, Geordie offered me a second drop of tay ("I'll be running the roads of Draperstown if I finish all this myself," he remarked with a titter.) Nipping past what looked like a bedframe no more than three hands from his stove, he stopped and asked, “Anything strange or startling in Gortin? Have you been up around Lislap or Boorin Wood much?” As night slumped down upon sleepy Owenreagh, magic filled the promise of some news from beyond Moyola River and arable Cavanreagh.

A lifelong bachelor, Georgie may have known the sting of a late December afternoon but never did he feel the indignity of a summer spent alone. With heather in his buttonhole, and peat upon his shoes, he was smitten by The Sixtowns and born to dig for clues. “I’ve never longed for a distant place,” he once said, as the winter sun split spiny hawthorn up by fair Ballinascreen. “A wee dander to stop and wonder will do. What use is the Far East when you can gaze at Lough Fea from a field in Ballybriest?”

To what he owed his peace, Geordie would reel off like a double jig: “Give me mistle thrush and heather bells and the dear cairns of Beaghmore. I’ll be content in Corick’s Glen and the wilds of Connelly’s Scar. Under midges in Glenviggan and down Lough Patrick Way, I’ll sit with a hundred swallows on a hydrangea-blue day. At Moyola’s waters, Och, so close to home, I’ll note the song of some corncrake: a long finger down the teeth of a comb.”

Stopping at St Anne’s Churchyard at Cavanreagh, where he now rests, a woodpigeon lets out a hoarse hooo-hrooo. I sit on wet grass and can almost hear him ask, “Can you hear the emphasis on the second note?” I close my eyes and recall his final correspondence to me. Two cars slowly pass in an hour. “‘Acrotelm’ is the thin, living surface layer of peat-forming vegetation,” he wrote on bogland, which he knew only too well. “But then there’s the ‘catotelm’. It’s the waterlogged peat store which can be found to go many meters deep. Like all of us who tread upon it, there are whole worlds fated to ne’er be seen.”

“P.S. The bed in the kitchen (1944?): doctor’s orders—please see poem “The Bed”—a combination of larch and Douglas fir.”

From a fallen gravestone in St. Anne’s, a final wood pigeon coo cues the long walk home. “God rest him,” I think. As he once put it himself, I knew it then: the birds all sang for Geordie. They were plenty different but as certain as news from Gortin and a second drop of tay, wee Geordie too was devoted and content in his way.


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