[ fiction - july 04 ]
Michel sighed. He'd forgotten the damn mutton kidneys. It was Bloomsday Eve, and he didn't fancy braving the rush in the General Store to get them. He'd thought he was ahead of the game, getting all the Bloomsday presents early a few days ago. Of course, he'd postponed getting the food for the breakfast. He had been in town to get some other groceries for the next week - some dried fruit, a fairly major expenditure for the summer. He had hoped to get the can of mutton kidney beans - no one was entirely sure what "mutton kidneys" were, so tinned beans were traditionally used - while he was in, but had clean forgot. And now here he was, having to brave the thick of the rush again. He sighed, and turned back in towards town.
At least he had only just crossed the glacier. He turned round, sighing, and recrossed the ice. In about a minute he was back on the good road. All the way back from here into town, there were various roadside billboards. Most of these were put up by the Town Council, and read "Bloomsday. It's about family. It's about community." Michel liked these signs. Bloomsday was about family, he felt. It was about the last connection with the Good Time, when things were better. When everyone always had enough to eat, when people could travel anywhere - anywhere! - in the world in less than a day. It was about something that had been handed down from the Good Time and, its arcane mysteries intact, from generation to generation.
Every so often along the road there would be a different billboard. These read "Don't Forget the Real Meaning of Bloomsday" or "Put Mohamed, the Great Wheel With Many Arms, back into Bloomsday" In the local paper the debate over Bloomsday had intensified. The Church of Norman Vincent Peale and His Helpmate Buddha, the main church in the town, had decried the commercialisation of the day. Once families had grown their own mutton kidney beans and made their own presents, but now - with some encouragement from the Town Council - they bought cans of beans and ready made presents, boosting the town's nascent industries.
"Bloomsday is about Peale, the prophet of Mohamed, the Great Wheel With Many Arms" the Pastor of the Church of Norman Vincent Peale and His Helpmate Buddha had declared in a letter to the paper. There was little else to do in Nova Zembla than read the local single-sheet paper, and thus everyone followed the correspondence that followed. The Pastor of the Church of Vishnu Caesar said he had no problem with the commercial side of Bloomsday. Most saw this as a grab for popularity by the smaller Church. The Lord of the Town Council, only recently elected Lord, stated that the commercial side of Bloomsday was a nice boost to the local merchants.
Michel preferred the town council's version. He was sympathetic to the religious rediscovery, which was gradually recovering the wisdom of the past. Fragments of the enormous literature of the Good Time were always turning up, and the various churches in each town were at the forefront of this research. But he was a little impatient with the Church's constant claim of a special place in the town's life, the final arbiter of what was right and wrong. The council had done well, and the new cannery and the craft workshops where the toys were, Michel felt, bulwarks against the threats that life still posed. He could remember when people starved to death every winter. Now it was unknown, although no-one ever quite had enough to eat.
Of all the feasts that they must have had in the Good Time, all we have is Bloomsday, he thought...
He recalled the Bloomsdays of his youth. He sensed the same cynicism in his eldest son, Laurent, as he had had at the same age. As a young child, and even as a young adolescent, Bloomsday was magical. It was a time when the community would get together, eat the traditional breakfast, and then each family would exchange gifts. First they would exchange gifts with each other, and then with each of their neighbours. Afterwards, they would walk from The Rosie O'Grady's, the traditional site of the celebrations, around the town for the traditional Bloomsday procession.
In the year or couple of years just before starting to work and becoming a man, boys had a phase of sneering at the simplicity of the ceremony. Michel had been no different.
He remembered sitting in The Rosie O'Grady's, with a studiously bored expression, thinking that it would impress the girls. On the way, he had pestered and pestered his father with questions.
"Why should we go? What is Bloomsday, anyway? No one knows."
"It's a link to the Good Time. They did it. They did it to celebrate."
"And why should we go to The Rosie O'Grady's?"
"Everywhere they went, they built a The Rosie O'Grady's."
"They wrote their sacred words on the wall, and built their altar."
That was the official version. Although he respected the official pieties, Michel's father had been laid-back enough to add "No one knows really, what the hell this 'Céad Mile Failte' thing meant, or what the altar was for. But, Michel, we really should go. One day you'll appreciate things like this."
He was right. One of the Sacred Texts read at the service of the Church of Norman Vincent Peale and His Helpmate Buddha was an old incantation on fatherhood:
"When I was six, my dad could do anything. When I was eight, my dad was the greatest man in the world. When I was ten, my dad knew everything. When I was twelve, my dad didn't know so much. When I was fourteen, my dad didn't know anything. When I was sixteen, my dad was hopelessly old-fashioned. When I was eighteen, my dad was a good man, but didn't really know much about things. When I was twenty, my dad was a good man. When I was twenty-two, I wished my dad was still around."
Whenever he heard it, Michel felt tearful. It was so true, and it was so beautiful. The language of the Good Time! The beauty of the words, the simple yet powerful way they put them together! Michel liked it almost as much as "Everything I learnt, I learnt in kindergarten." That was the great text of both Churches, its praise of kindness and sharing loved by all. No-one really knew what this mysterious "kindergarten" was. It must have been a place of great wisdom.
Michel, as he reached town, again had tears in his eyes. Before going into the shop to buy the kidney beans he had to compose himself. He missed his father. He was very glad that the sneering phase had only been for a year, and the following year - already engaged, with a home and a farm of his own - he had taken part in the Bloomsday celebration with the proper reverence. For his father had died of a fever the following winter.
* * *
The next morning, Michel and his wife Adelaide got while it was still dark. They had been married fifteen years now, and found life together as congenial as the first day. Both were placid, calm folk, accepting of the oft-harsh realities of life on Nova Zembla. Things had improved a lot since they were young, and they were glad to see that life would be better for their children. This morning, obviously, they were going to skip breakfast. They got the children's best clothes ready.
Then they got the children up. Their farmhouse was small and cold, and all the children slept in the kitchen on pallets. It was by some way the warmest room in the house, with some heat still from the stove. Cara and Louise, aged ten and eight respectively, leapt out of bed with excited squeals. Laurent was harder to rouse, and with a suppressed smile Michel realised that his suppositions were right. As he expected, Laurent's first reaction was to turn and blurt irritably
"Why should we go there, dad? Why should we go to the stupid Bloomsday?"
Michel said nothing, but went over to where he had laid out the children's clothes with Adelaide earlier that morning. As he expected, Laurent got up anyway, and continued to blaspheme Bloomsday. A stupid waste of time, etc. etc. Michel heard all this, but affected to ignore it. Then he turned to Laurent.
"You'll understand some day too, Laurent. Once I felt like you did."
Laurent looked back, trying to look defiant but only managing to look very young. Michel was happy. Really he was a great son, a good worker who would provide very well for the house when he started working - as a apprentice to one of the other farmers, or possibly in one of the new factories. Laurent was broadshouldered, and intimidatingly well muscled for a thirteen year old - all Adelaide's family were big, strong men. Michel and his father had been slight, but wiry. Laurent was as tall as Michel already. He'll be a tall boy, Michel and Adelaide often said to each other. Five eight, maybe even five ten.
The family all walked out of the house, across their field and then followed the track to the glacier. Over this they joined the main road, and the many other families walking into town for the great day. There was a festive air. Michel always thought this was how the Good Time must have been, before the great change. The first Bloomsday had been in Ireland, land where The Rosie O'Grady had first been built. Ireland now was under the Central Ice Sheet, with little bits sticking out here and there. The people had scattered, another part of the Great Remixing, as the once-warm lands of the south froze and the once-cold lands of the north became warm. Once Nova Zembla had been uninhabitable, a frozen wasteland all year round, according to some old records unearthed by the Churches. Now it was much milder, although it still froze up in the winter.
All had gathered in The Rosie O'Grady's. This was a long hall, with low benches. Every family sat down. There were no particular places of honour, and each family sat down in the first place they found. They opened their tins of mutton kidney beans and put them on the plates provided by the council. Someone from the council came around with the portions of fried meat.
Michel looked around happily. Both the pastors were here. The shopowners were here. The burly foresters and their families, the richly-dressed merchants, the ordinary farmers like himself, the blacksmith, the cooper. The workers in the General Store, in the craft workshops, in the canned food factory. Michel looked around at the honest faces of the men, the tired yet happy faces of the women, the boys trying to look bored, the girls just coming into beauty, the excited younger children. It was as the billboards said: Bloomsday. It's About Family. It's About Community.
The Lord of the Town Council coughed. He seemed a little nervous. It was, after all, his first Bloomsday since his election. He read the words of the rite, those beautiful but impenetrable words:
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan."
Then they all solemnly began their breakfast.