Sounds of a Slop Man

painting, john ryan, boyne art studio
Metal Monster

I was standing under a huge metal bridge on a raging hot summer day in New York. A relentless and constant rattling noise emanated from the ribbed carcass. Not a second went past unmarked by the hammer and clang that reverberated from the massive hollow hulk. If there wasn’t a car passing by overhead on the giant structure causing it to shudder, a cross breeze kept the metal monster on the move through its myriad of nuts and bolted joints.

Looming large was a concoction of reverberating, unpredictable and discordant metal musicality. It had a constant shifting, positioning and re-positioning, expanding and contracting, sliding and shimmering orchestration. A busy bamboozled banging brass band clanged and clattered. One could almost hear a rhythm less rapper in the jagged stops and starts, the hot metal monotone, a monologue of heavily punctuated verse and chapter.

Every clunk and clink filled every moment every day for the rest of its life. Each sound, although brief, was an entity in itself, never repeated. It was a calamity of rattling junk, a collective permutation of music metallica.

I remember the scene as if it were yesterday and contrast it to the setting now in front of my eyes. Silent snow covers the still of Tara Hill. Mute sheep lie huddled in clumps, little distinction between them and the spotless sheet-like background. An exception is the occasional black smut of a snout or full face half covered by a puff of unshorn winter coat. The only sound breaking the deathly silence is a single caw. The dull disappointed note of a lone black raven who sounds surprised by the sudden overnight fall. Clearly he’s unable to fathom where breakfast might be found in this more than slightly inconvenient new arrangement to his life.

I grew up in the city. A postage stamp of a front garden with a raw black iron railing for a boundary and a flimsy hedge separated our bedroom window from the sound of traffic on the main thoroughfare that is Parnell Road. One could say I’m used to noise. The Grand Canal on the other side of the road as well as the avenue around the corner constituted our playground.

Of course, that was back in the ‘50s and the everyday sounds provided a natural rhythm and punctuated pace to life that we don’t hear today. Sound was distinctive and dare I say, had distinction. Where once there was musical melody in almost every resonance, now there is discordant noise. The sounds we heard offered a synergistic pacing and engaged us in the natural rhythm of life. They were unobtrusive and happened as a natural consequence, a result of the hardware that provided them.

The steel studded rim made the sound off the coal man’s dray and coupled with the clip clop of horseshoes on the cobbled surface. The ricocheted noise of gig wheels echoed from Paddy the slop man’s wooden box cart as they double clicked over the black half-inch tar line. It was the divider of large concrete rectangles that make up the road surface.

The clickity-clack was of the railroad track as we sped toward Blackrock Baths. Rolled up towels with knick’s and sandwiches were wrapped under arm to spend the day in the sun. The ringing sound of the bell from Donore Avenue Church signalled upcoming mass ten minutes before the event. The whistle from Will’s announcing the workers break was heard within a mile radious of the factory. All these measured beats kept the rhythm. They noted the rhyme and held our otherwise disjointed lives together and in tact.

Like the tick tock of the grandmother clock in Mr. Buckley’s (the neighbour next door) hall. His wife was a stumpy Cork woman with a rolling, singing vocabulary who leaned heavily on the double railing that divided the front gardens. Balancing her arthritic lump between her right hand that clasped the flimsy upper rail and the tippy-toes of her rooted left foot she craned forward. The pointer, one of her walking sticks, was at full stretch to knock on my mother’s front door. Lifting the knocker carefully to its greatest height with the rubber end of her walking stick, she’d withdraw the support and a crashing sound that shook the house brought a curse to my mother’s lip. ‘What the blazes does she want now, and me in the middle of getting the dinner.’ Mrs Buckley made a point of calling at the most inconvenient times and it stole at least a good hour from the day of the Ma’s precious time.

The only discordant sounds I remember from those times seemed to emanate solely from this neighbour. She lumbered around on gate post legs, grunting. Her knotted hands clasped two thick walking sticks. Once I studied her, as she slowly scaled the double step into her house with marked precision, an engaging experience for a six-year-old. I couldn’t conceive how she felt about her condition. Inherent physical pain was way beyond my capacity or understanding. I only knew then about the brutish, outwardly inflicted type.

At about the same time every evening she could be heard through the party-wall that divided both houses, screeching her kitchen chair across the hard red-tiled floor. I could picture her seating her bulky load in front of the fire for the evening knitting. The click, click of the needles keeping plain and purl pace, a mother’s occupation when her charges were laid to rest at the end of the day.

Early in the morning, the sound of clanging glass milk bottles woke us. The milkman fingered the empties five at a time, lifting them all in one go. Passing back over the granite threshold he would swing the front gate. At the last second his free hand lifting it slightly with expert ease to let the latch drop into its holder with a single sharp metallic click. This was music to my ears that could be heard from under the bed covers. Those every morning sounds registered like clockwork as I turned over to enjoy the best half hour of the day, sleepy-eyed, under the warm blankets, before getting up to serve at first mass.

The chirpy sound of sparrows that nested at gutter level, above the boy’s bedroom window, could be heard all day during nesting time. Short bursts of twisting filigree chipper-chops filled the air as they seemed to fly straight toward us into the window only to swoop up at the last second. They buried their little bodies in the fascia above our heads, disappearing into their snug little attic homes.

Downstairs in the kitchen, a tinny frantic drumming of the boiling teapot lid reverberated till the gas was turned down. Then, an odd tick of the lid against the rim indicated that simmering black stew was now at the ready. During the day the hours were measured by the soft slow dunking of the dining room’s all staring face. The Da’s haven, it’s where he went after work to bury himself away from his children and revel in the square Cyclops.

From the bed we could hear the rhythmic click-clicking of Ma’s nocturnal sowing machine as she deftly ran a repair on a right-angled rip just above the hem of Eileen’s new summer dress. It was caught by a thorn-bush during a speedy exit from Summer’s orchard.

Occasionally, the phone would waken the house with its double ‘bring-ring’, followed by a slight pause before the next ‘bring-ring and again a momentary pause, the precise pattern continuing till you answered it. Sometimes, the caller would ring off the instant you put your hand on the receiver.

The sounds of yesteryear had a pace, a tapestry of rhythm that provided us with a natural flow. Even the rattling synchronisms of Mr. Moylan’s mint Morris Minor gave us early warning to pull our football off the Arbutus Avenue. We would leave a wide passage as he snailed past us with bits of eyebrows peering over the firmly gripped steering wheel, paws at ten to two. We were eager to view his rear end and continue with the ever-pressing immediacy of play.

Today our cars are silent, smooth and fast. They creep up on us if we happen to nap or lose concentration for a moment and surprise us into realization. Phones go off in our pockets jumping us to soldier like attention. We, always at the ready, respond automatically to computer blips, car alarms, TV noise, ambulence and garda car sirens that flings our souls into a mishmash of discord and raps our sensitivity into submissive numbness.

And, so our world of measured melodic sound has disappeared and in its place are noisy discordant simulations. Now we rush and are ever racing after the rasps that command attention. Our mobile moments punctuated by blips and pips and synthetic sharps. The noises we mistakenly call sound, jar us to immediate attention, most times unnecessarily. We are now constantly primed, at the ready for any surprise eventuality and we respond immediately without considering the consequences of trivia tripping. It’s noticeable, we’ve become embroiled in inconsequential selective news items that don’t feed our welfare. Disjointed from our natural rhythm, we’ve developed and encouraged a hopscotch, stop start approach to life.

Like the piggy in the middle, we’re left wondering what is it that has brought us to this place in the name of progress. We’ve lost something here and we don’t even recognize it as a loss. It doesn’t register with us because we’ve forgotten or indeed we’ve never experienced it. In its place there’s nothing that soothes and now we don’t recognize the need for natural pacing sounds. Our souls cry out in despair but we can’t identify the cry. ‘For what?’ we ask, but we can’t answer because we don’t know. Our souls know but our bodies don’t remember, have forgotten or worse, never knew in the first place.