bats, Belfast, Belfast Telegraph, Brian Baird, Carrickfergus, County Antrim, David Dunseith, Edna O'Brien, Home, Lough Neagh, Mark Knopfler, Memoir, Mother daughter relationship, Northern Ireland, On Raglan Road, Patrick Kavanagh, Themes of childhood, United States, white-nose syndrome, Yeats
I feel bad about my fear of bats, especially now that I know I should be more afraid of a world without them. I found out this morning about White-Nose Syndrome which has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, threatening to leave many species extinct.
My mother is to be blamed for my fear of bats. Probably my grandmother too. As a little girl, my mother had been coaxed inside on those long summer evenings, when granny invariably called out, “Get you into the house or those bats will get stuck in your hair!” That did the trick, and with great success my mother applied the same tactic to me. When the bats began darting across the sky at dusk, swooping high and low above the barley field between Lough Neagh and our house, I raced inside, my long hair afrizz and entangled following hours of playing rounders.
All of this leads me to a story, the kind about which you laugh one day twenty years later. My parents had moved to a new house. Their nest was empty with my brother at university and me looking for myself somewhere in America. One July evening when they were outside, the young woman who lived across the street inquired in a neighborly way if my mother happened to know she had bats. I would pay good money to see the expression on ma’s face as it dawned on her that the high pitched squeaks she had been hearing at night were not a figment of her imagination after all, but the sounds of those very creatures that had struck terror in her heart as a child. Seeing she had my mother’s rapt attention, the well-intentioned neighbor went on to explain that indeed while she and her husband had been out on their evening walks with the new baby, they had spotted bats disappearing into a corner of the rooftop of my parent’s house. Naturally, my father, a veritable Jack of all trades and master of most all of them, was charged with finding and fixing the hole in the roofspace by which the bats entered each evening and. Meanwhile, like a dog with a bone, my mother was on a mission, poring through the Yellow Pages, no doubt making casual inquiries to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, researching and ringing up people of the conservation ilk in Belfast. Finally, she made what she thought was the right connection with someone expert in all things bat-related and a woman from Carrickfergus was duly dispatched to resolve the issue. Not so fast … Bat lady arrived, an academic by all appearances in a navy cardigan, a tweed skirt, and her grey hair in a bun. None of these details is relevant or important to the story, and it should be noted that I own a navy cardigan of which I’m very fond, but each of these clearly made an impression on my mother. “As sharp as a lance,” this officious woman was having none of my mother’s remonstrations about the bats. Her male side-kick was no help either. To my mother’s dismay, the dynamic duo had swooped in not to “sort out” the bats, but were in fact there on behalf of the bats to make sure that my parents did not disturb them. On no account were the bats to be inconvenienced. Of course, that went over like a ton of bricks. The pair were summarily dismissed, which might possibly be the first time anyone left our house without having had at least a cup of tea and a biscuit, and my parents found themselves in a quandary over what to do.
The woman from Carrickfergus, however, had no qualms about her next steps. On a different mission altogether, she took it upon herself to contact a higher authority. (Worth noting, dear reader, that these events transpired in 1992. In Ireland. The Northern part. In July, arguably the hottest month of the year, politically speaking.) In the wee hours of the next morning, around three o’clock, the doorbell rang. My father got up, looked out the window, where to his bewilderment were “two car loads” of police and an officer looking up at him, demanding that he come downstairs to talk about the bats. I can just hear my dad responding – with the irritated air of a man whose post-Christmas dinner nap has been interrupted – that he had no notion of getting up to talk about bats. Honest to God, my father wished the officer goodnight, closed the window, and went back to bed while my mother fretted about what the neighbors would be thinking about my father and herself being visited by the police in the early hours of the morning. She would wonder again, because the drama had only just begun. It was perhaps a few evenings later after doing the weekly shopping that she noticed parked up the street several police cars and a van too. At first, it crossed her mind that maybe there had been “an incident” the like of which would be reported in the Belfast Telegraph or recounted by a solemn Brian Baird on the evening news.
Ah now, I must take a moment to tell you about Brian Baird who, in addition to reading the news with gravitas, served as a Tutor for the Department of English at Stranmillis University College Belfast. Mr. Baird’s Modern Irish Fiction Since Joyce course changed my reading life; in it, I discovered the novels of Edna O’Brien, the short stories of Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, and Brian Friel’s plays. I will never forget him. Maudlin, maybe, but even as I write, I swear I can hear his recitation of Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road which moved me to tears, and for my money, still rivals only Mark Knopfler’s version of the same. I much prefer to think of Mr. Baird waxing poetic than reporting news that was mostly bad in those days. Some years later, I sent him a letter, because great teachers should be thanked. In anticipation of teaching an Irish literature class myself, I wondered if perhaps he would share with me his course outline and a reading list. He obliged, and I was delighted this evening to find both his letter and the list, carefully folded between pages 186 and 187 of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh. It saddened me to find out cancer took Mr. Baird eight years after he sent me this letter. Cancer. There’s just no getting away from it.
I have to wonder what Brian Baird or veteran broadcaster David Dunseith who died last year, would have made of my mother’s “incident” that afternoon. Before she had time to put away the groceries, there was a sharp knock at the front door. Standing there were several police officers, some in uniform, one bearing a warrant that would allow them to search the roofspace. For bats. My mortified mother tried in vain to explain to the detective standing incongruously in her sitting room that the bats simply could not stay. It was out of the question. Au contraire, he pointed out, perhaps it would be my parents who would not be staying. All for nought; in the end, not a single bat was to be found. They had vanished. That is the truth. Thinking about it now, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps their timely disappearance could be attributed to a hole that had been stuffed with a rag or maybe the green sweater my mother used to wear around the house. I must digress – again – to explain that the sweater has long been the subject of speculation in our family, having vanished following one of my father’s epic remodeling adventures. While daddy is to this day hard pressed to pass any remarks on what my mother wears (and bearing in mind that her dress sense would rival that of a stylish Princess Diana off to christen a ship), he did not like that “‘oul green jumper,” and there was a strong suspicion that perhaps he had buried it under the floorboards while renovating our kitchen in the house where I grew up. We’ll never know the whole story about the green sweater or the bats. We do know that “affronted,” my mother essentially hid in her new house until she was assured beyond the shadow of a doubt that my long-suffering father had visited all their new neighbors, proclaiming their innocence and making certain everyone knew he and my mother were not common criminals. Funny now.
To reiterate, the bats left entirely of their own volition. While the hole had been filled (perhaps with a cable-knit green sweater), it had also been unblocked at night, just in case the mother bats needed to get back in to feed their young, resembling “the wee mice with wings” that my dad didn’t want to harm. My mother has an entirely different sentiment, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Note: Fearing reprisal, my mother and father choose to remain anonymous.