Tuesday, May 03, 2011
I was in Wexford at my wife's parent's place when I heard. The initial reports seemed muddled or contradictory, and it now appears that many of them were: that OBL was living in a 'luxury compound' (called 'ramshackle' on The News At Ten), that he returned fire with the Navy Seals (apparently he was unarmed), that one of the helicopters was shot down (apparently it made a hard landing and had to be destroyed), that OBL attempted to use his wife as a 'human shield' (it now appears that she was considerably more animated than any shield and got shot in the leg for her pains). Then there is the matter of that strange and speedy burial at sea, though apparently they have genetic proof that the target actually was OBL. More significantly, there is talk of film footage, evidence apparently too gruesome to be released to the public.
So, the reportage continues, and probably will for some time, a rich compost of fact and rumour, out of which will sprout who knows what conspiracy theories, myths, books, films, etc. As Heaney put it so perfectly in his take on an ode by Horace, 'anything can happen.' A soft-spoken man with a Guru-beard can be responsible for nearly 3000 deaths (in three fell swoops), can in fact be the architect of the slaughter and, not incidentally, the demolisher of that very singular dual-edifice, the 'twin towers', which Norman Mailer so detested, calling them 'two huge buck teeth', declaring 'the ruin more beautiful than the buildings.'
The act reverberated, and still does, a tuning fork for a different century, a different way of being uncertain. For me (as with most people, I imagine), it also embodies a particular time and place in my own life. I have, at most, a very dim memory of where I was when the Kennedys or John Lennon were killed. But I can recall exactly where I was when September 11 took place. I was with my cousin Isobel, looking for some decent coffee in a supermarket in the little town of Silvesh in Portugal. We were there with our mothers, Sheila and Nuala (both in their early eighties at that stage) and their older, very English sister, Moira. Isobel had arranged the holiday, which turned out to be the last time these sisters would travel together. We had been there perhaps two weeks at this stage, two thirds of our holiday, well-settled in the house we were renting: white arches, cool tiled floors and marble stairs, with a lovely large pool, all nested among lemon groves at the end of a long, loudly crunching stone-and-dirt lane which trailed and twisted under leafy canopies, through a wildly barking farm, before emerging onto the hot, smooth road into town.
Being the only driver, I had agreed to rent a car at the airport and follow the instructions and map sent by the estate agent. A silly plan. I had never driven outside Ireland and we soon became lost. As evening abruptly switched to night, we ended up in a tiny village off the motorway, with hardly any idea where we were. Stressed and tense, I entered a roundabout the wrong way, and when a lone motorist speeded towards me and honked aggressively I shouted at him (stating the obvious): 'Can't you see I'm a fucking tourist?' Unfortunately, all this occurred under the eyes of a couple of local policemen, so we had to pay an on-the-spot fine of 80 Euro.
We finally gave in and called the estate agent. She arrived fairly quickly and offered to lead us to the villa, a journey of perhaps twenty minutes or so. When her taillights took a totally obscure turn into the unmarked drive I realised that we would never have found the place. As we followed her car around the narrow bends, we began to discern an odd orangy flickering, as if the whole horizon were aflame and we were entering some ominous fairy tale. I can still hear Moira's queenly, unruffled drawl: 'Oh my god, we're driving into a forest fire.' And there was a forest fire, or a bushfire anyway. But it was far more distant than it had appeared. I came down to breakfast to find the lemon groves untouched, but on a rounded, not-too-distant hillside you could see the damage: a little crest of spent match-sticks.
So, back to the supermarket two weeks later. We asked a couple of Scottish tourists if they could help us find some coffee, and they did their best. Before parting, they asked us (by the way, as it were) if we'd heard about Manhattan being 'under attack'. We thought they must be regurgitating some half-digested tidbit. Then, a little later, walking through the charming narrow streets, possibly in search of a little café, somewhere with a bit of shade to sit and talk (and drink coffee), we noticed a modest crowd bulging out from a little sports shop. We became curious when we realised they were all gazing at a TV mounted on the wall inside. Then we saw the planes, the orange-black plumes, indelible and unforgettable. I had thought till recently that what we had seen was one of the endless action replays, but Isobel has since told me that she checked the time and is now convinced that we actually witnessed the second plane hitting its target in 'real' time.
Of course we wanted more information, but we were in Portugal. Back at the house, the only English-speaking TV was an American business channel (might have been CNBC) mainly concerned with stockbroker news, though we were given the occasional update or interview, and endless reruns of the exploding towers along with old footage of OBL, probably taken in Afghanistan. Thus we became familiar with the man's placid features, in his white robe or camouflage-jacket in the Afghan mountains, seemingly at ease, holding some weapon or other. Was OBL a suspect or had he claimed responsibility in those first days of the 'new world order'? I remember wondering why he didn't declare his hand more quickly, since everything had gone so spectacularly to plan. What could be more perfect? Not merely 'terrorism' but, as Martin Amis coined it, 'horrorism', an OTT 'Die Hard' sequel in brutally ironic (though in some ways even less real) flesh and blood.
Other things conspired to make that holiday memorable. It had been memorable in a good way up till then, the ladies relaxing in the pool, my mother's infernal arthritis all but forgotten.. After The Event, we kept the TV on, hopeful for some more detailed news in between financial updates; the screen followed us around the living room like an unsleeping eye and we were neither there nor there, in an anteroom of one of 'those big words that make us so unhappy.' Then, towards the end of our holiday, the youngest sister, Nuala (Isobel's mother), began to feel a bit shaky in her legs. This occurred perhaps a day before we left. We didn't know the signs, or didn't know them well enough, though Isobel was worried. We managed to get her mother to a doctor on the day of our departure. He didn't appear too concerned, advised a scan as soon as it might be convenient.
The airport was chaotic, long queues, police and soldiers with automatic weapons, our mothers in wheelchairs. We had to dump anything sharp, so mum sacrificed a pair of decorative old nail scissors, her mother's. Nuala was groggy now. We tried to decide whether we should try to get her back to that doctor; I even made a call, but nobody spoke any English and I hadn't a word of Portuguese or Spanish. And suddenly our queue was on the move, we could be back in Dublin in a couple of hours. So we boarded, and Nuala went into a coma. I asked one of the cabin crew if they could call ahead to have an ambulance ready in Dublin. This was a mistake, and we were a hair from being told to leave the plane (they don't fly gravely ill passengers), but we managed to convince them (or they allowed us to convince them) that it wasn't all that serious after all, no worries, we'd be fine, honestly.
We did manage to get an ambulance very shortly after landing, and though Nuala had a 'massive cerebral hemorrhage' she survived another decade, and weathered a few more strokes, to die peacefully, and mercifully quickly, in St Vincent's hospital last year. And Moira, the eldest, has recently died at nearly 95. And now they've shot the man who loomed so large in that strange, dislocated holiday. It all might have happened last week, or yesterday.
A couple of other things Mailer said in the aftermath of September 11: 'I'm always dubious about patriotism.'So am I, though I can understand the jingoistic flag-waving, the celebrations, and even emapthise a little with the festival atmosphere that must prevail in American cities, especially NY. Who could argue with the mother of one of the firefighters who died that day, her belief that this is what he would have wished? Mailer thought Georg W. Bush seemed like 'a man who had never been embarrassed by himself.' Absolutely. So I am very glad it was Obama's terse, grave sentence 'Justice has been done' that helped set the mood, a counterpoint to all the misplaced optimism and gaiety. Imagine if this had happened on GWB's watch; the thick-skulled, insufferable gloating, the victory parades, the great, self-congratulatory banquet of bullshit.