Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A Rampant Reel

For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve. 

The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames. 

The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.   

The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.

A Rampant Reel (by Derek Irwin)

The phrase “and they danced a rampant reel” appears, with the regularity of a sunrise, towards the end of each slender volume in an infinite library of romantic novels, penned by one Iris Laing. Laing’s fictional world, twice removed from the 20th century, is the province of highwaymen, dashing naval officers, and Lords who marry milkmaids and other symbols of the unwashed peasantry with such frequency that it is a wonder that the boundaries of class still endure. I suppose the overlying message the author wishes to impart to her readers is that there is no obstacle, be it physical or cultural, that cannot be overcome by love. 

The expression “a rampant reel” was intended as a chaste euphemism for coitus, although in my early youth, prior to my initiation into the poet’s shadow world of allusion and metaphor, I took it at face value. Having grown up in a village 40 miles from Dublin where communal singing was a commonplace evening activity and where there were often dances at the weekend, it seemed plausible to me that a newly minted couple might choose to celebrate a union forged from an arduous  succession of misunderstandings, fraught peril, enforced separation and contrived happenstance, with the catharsis of a spirited dance. My parents who were keen to avoid an embarrassing conversation that elaborated on the minutiae of the sexual act were more than willing to entertain my theory. 

The alliterative force of the “Rampant Reel” took root in my imagination. By a subconscious process of linear thought I conceived of an identically-named fishing apparatus, fashioned from a yoyo. In my daydreams I would skim this across the surface of Chalkie’s Pond, drawing forth from the murky depths one of the large pike who, mistaking the ripples for the passage of a frog or a small bird, would rise to swallow the bait only to be yanked from the waters by my well-timed backspin. In my more brazen fantasies I imagined that I possessed the skill to make my reel imitate the struggle of different species of animals, thereby enticing a more diverse array of quarry to my lure.  

The fantasy of the Rampant Reel took seed in the spring of 1948 and continued into Autumn, at which point the persistence of the idea at last forced itself into reality. On a shopping expedition into Dublin I took advantage of a deviation into Maximillian’s Ironmongers and convinced my mother to purchase for me one of the yoyos from a flimsy cardboard box on the counter. 

It was a poorly made toy, mass produced from an unnamed silver-coloured alloy that showed signs of tarnishing. The absence of any significant weight left it unbalanced and prone to veering to the right or left of a stable axis, generating a wobble that would rapidly escalate to a point where the yoyo was no longer able to ascend its string. In my father’s tool shed I painted the words “Rampant Reel” on both hemispheres  - an action that raised eyebrows among those who were familiar with the work of Laing, among them Father Cullen, who attempted unsuccessfully to remove it from my possession. Had he done so he would have disposed of it as he did with all confiscated items, throwing it with unerring accuracy onto an inaccessible wooden ledge 30 feet up the inner wall of the bell-tower of Saint Luke’s. 

One Sunday morning after church I cast my Rampant Reel across the still waters of Chalkie’s Pond. There was a moment before it inevitably sank, where it lay almost flat on one side as if indecisively measuring its weight against the density of the fluid that cushioned it. Almost immediately I felt a strong tug that drew the loop of string around my index finger painfully tight, while at the same time very nearly pulling me off my feet. As I attempted to free my trapped digit from the shrinking noose I perceived in the pond, in the vicinity of a buttress of Wading Elms, a disturbance which I took to be evidence of some Piscean struggle unfolding just below the surface. Seconds later I felt the line slacken. With a heavy heart I withdrew from below the waterline the severed chord, trailing through the duckweed like an injured snake.  

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