The thick foliage made the place so dark. And full of rustles and creaks. But, even so, Frank was confident that if it was there, he would know. Anyone would. A tiger couldn’t live undetected in Tolka Valley Park. For days, let alone years.
Frank stepped carefully from under the branches and out into what light had been provided by the low grey day. He bit his lip and frowned. Of course, no one had said that it was the park, but where else might a tiger live in Dublin? Frank knew that a wild animal would not be happy with a semi-detached on Springlawn Drive or even taking up residence in The Blanch (though Frank himself had often dreamt of being left inside the shopping centre overnight with free rein over all the toys and sweets he had not been allowed through the years).
So he took to spending hours down by the river waiting for the thirsty beast to emerge and lap at the waters.
Three places came to be Frank’s regular hides – behind a small hillock where he could view quite a length of the Tolka; enveloped by the branches of a bush a short distance from the water’s edge and – when he had the energy and the rain wasn’t so bad as to make climbing slippery – up in the boughs of an alder tree that loomed over the bank like a expectant vulture.
And the more Frank waited, the most accustomed he became to waiting. To quiet. To his own company. Sometimes, he even forgot about the tiger and lost hours in his own thoughts. But, all through that, he still felt as if there was something more to come. As if something surprising might happen at any second. And then all the minutes and hours and damp and discomfort would have been for something.
At home, his father’s talk about the tiger had been in glowing terms. Frank had been startled at first but the frequent mentions were always complimentary, as if the two-tone panther was Dublin’s greatest asset.
“All thanks to the Celtic Tiger, Kath,” his Da had said, dropping his jacket over a chair and nodding proudly towards the prime beef that Frank’s mother had been basting in the evening glow of the kitchen. And though Frank had examined his dinner carefully, he had never been able to find the claw or teeth marks. But his father had had some dotted cuts and scratches on his face – ones he’d tried to hide that morning with scraps of tissue. So Frank had begun to look at his father with more awe than the job at the bank (where he didn’t even serve customers) could ever have elicited. Because everyone knew that a big cat was at its most ferocious when another creature approached to steal its kill.
But as months passed with no striped prowling creature appearing in the park and his father’s nightly remarks increasingly including grumbles about downturns and regulators, the search for the tiger began to fade from Frank’s thoughts.
His hours in Tolka Valley Park became not about waiting, but observing the place’s genuine inhabitants, noting the changes of season as the life around ebbed and flowed and finding comfort in the cycles of existence that took place without excessive talk or description – life and decline just happening as they had done for generations.
Frank didn’t train his eyes on blank spaces any longer but on tiny worlds where grass and leaves were cities for ants and beetles. And the water’s edge was the gateway to a teeming wetland universe of snails and frogs, duckweed and bulrushes. Where dancing hoverflies’ erratic flickering sandwiched the pond skaters within a triptych that left the water boatman below to provide the solemn grace that only a submerged existence can.
There was a pair of mute swans who would herald their appearance with the pulse of their throbbing wings as they flew overhead before alighting on the pond. And moorhens and wrens who foraged methodically through the sedge and watercress – all while butterflies came to rest amongst the cuckoo flowers and nettles to lay their eggs. There was so much to see every day. So much that was the same. Expected. And so much that was different and surprising.
It wasn’t all serenity and peace – though even death took place without fanfare in that natural realm. Ferocious beetle larvae and dragonfly nymphs would catch and consume tadpoles, some with jaws like sickles and others with mouth parts that extended out to snatch and draw back their prey for chewing and swallowing.
But it all had a kind of sense to it. A feeling of timelessness that was reassuring and a detachment from the man-made world that brought freedom and ease. It was inevitable. Patterns and variation taking place without introspection or celebration, without prediction or analysis. All within a wetland that had been constructed to solve the problem of a stream polluted by poorly connected domestic drains.
Frank became so much a part of the park that he could see things that he knew no one else had seen. He learnt to sit – or crouch – barely breathing, in one spot while nothing happened, anticipating a few seconds of minute action that would take place close by. He was able to ignore cramping feet and numb cold fingers because he knew his patience would be rewarded. And it always was.
An orb spider would spin its web in front of his eyes. A feisty robin would battle another for its place on a hawthorn tree. A shining green damselfly would alight gently beside him on some cats-tail grass and pick its way carefully along the drooping brush before flashing its departure in a flick of long green tail and gauzy wing. All as the bustling city circled the parkland oasis like a seething urban moat.
But Frank could forget that. The city wasn’t part of this natural haven. Frank became so lost in the green and brown, the gentle rustles and the soft lapping of the water, that the busy streets and buildings only minutes away were part of a different life. And things seemed simpler without the clutter of technology and business and money. City time could seem suspended to a boy immersed in the evolving cycles all around him.
As evenings closed in, the sounds would change – as would the activity around the pond and in the undergrowth. The chatter of birds would at first escalate and then fade and the occasional flutter of a nearby butterfly disappeared as the air around thickened with the gloom of night. The scuffles of foraging rats crept into the silence with a closed in quality that made Frank wonder if the darkness had formed a roof over the world. And only when he noticed that his nose and fingers tingled with the cold, did he feel the growls of his hunger and find his thoughts wandering with fondness to the warmth of a kitchen and the savoury smells that could encircle him beneath his mother’s welcoming scowl.
“Frank! Get washed up and start on your homework now!” she would say, as she shook her head and rolled her eyes. But with the hint of a smile that Frank knew meant that she would almost be disappointed if he didn’t return the next afternoon to spend some time in Tolka Valley Park. The place that she called his ‘home away from home’.
It was true. The poplars and brambles were his walls, the tufts of rye-grass and the muddy banks his furniture and his room-mates were a forever changing gaggle of birds and insects and creatures that included him so seamlessly in their lives that they had come to hardly register his presence.
So by the time that Frank heard the Celtic Tiger referred to in his high school economics class, he had long forgotten what had first taken him to his days amidst the thriving sub-urban wilderness. And he had sighed quietly as he realised that his infantile self had spent weeks of his childhood hunting for a metaphor that had labelled the best days in his father’s working life.
But Frank had found something. Not a tiger. Not even an economic boom that had blessed and tantalised before crushing hopes and ambition and national pride. But something that had become part of his thoughts, as infused into his being as an errant moth caught in a web and bound comprehensively by its spider host.
Frank couldn’t sit in school assembly without easing his breath to the pace of life around a quiet pond. He couldn’t hear the splash of water without thinking of a leaping frog or a ducking moorhen. He couldn’t see two lads squaring up with an audience of twittering girls without imagining two cocky birds battling for territory. And when his father sat solemnly on the sofa in the pyjamas that he hadn’t changed for days while Frank and his mother ate dinner, Frank’s mind went to creatures that hibernated for the winter. And he wondered if his father might emerge from his stasis as the queen bee did, ready to rebuild and start again. With new bees.
At home, things had become plain and sparse. There was a grey pall through the house and the prime beef dinners had become oxtail or lamb’s liver casserole. The Tiger Frank had once hunted was long gone. So the park and its kingdom – a universe of trees and grass and water – was even more compelling.
Frank lost himself in any patch of green that he could find. Where there was sky and the full breath of a breeze, he was satisfied – and craving for more. So as he observed and learnt in the wetland, he read and discovered in books and online. He watched documentaries, not just about migrating geese and marching penguins but about the resources of the land; the earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes that shaped and changed the terrain; the microscopic worlds that existed within dimensions the size of a raindrop. And he began to wonder why people still ignored the lessons they should have learnt long before. From the always evolving solutions that emerged in the realms seemingly disregarded by the age of technology.
The earth rose and settled. Plants grew and animals navigated obstacles. And there was life and nutrition and persistence. Frank saw it all away from the tall buildings and the noisy machines and the clamouring people.
And from the airless space that his house had become – where energy went to die.
Outside, Frank saw the evolving questions of nature. And he watched the answers that appeared through water and wind and adaptation. He watched the changes and the constancy around him and he knew that his urban family could find simplicity and longevity in the patterns of the wilder world, the everlasting cycle that saw plants and animals and elements in decline, flux and abundance. He saw decay. And he saw survival.
And by the time his last days at school were just a few exams away, he was ready for so much more.
“There’s no work out there,” his father opined, as Frank dropped the careers guides on the kitchen table.
“If you have to leave, love, we’ll do what we can – but we’re just a bit … restricted … in what we can do to help you get started,” his mother said apologetically.
“Leave?” Frank looked puzzled.
“Jee-zus, Frank!” his father spat through clenched jaws. “You live in your own little world … always have! Can’t you see that everyone’s going?! Anyone who wants a job … a life … they have to get out of here.” He looked at his son’s perplexed face and the volume that festered through his dormant hours was released. “There’s no future in Ireland now. Not for me, not even for the young ones – the ones they can pay a pittance and put to slaving in some godforsaken place!”
“It’s alright, Da,” Frank said calmly, frowning with concern at his father’s pulsing temples. “Don’t worry so much …”
“Oh God, Kath, you tell him … I don’t have the patience for this …” And his father left the room.
“I know you’ll do well in your exams, Frank,” his mother said quietly, once calm had properly settled. “But these days, that doesn’t mean as much as it once did. There aren’t the jobs out there, even for the bright ones. You know both the Phelan boys went to Australia and Jessica Morrow’s at college in Canada or somewhere …”
“I know all that but I don’t want to leave. … Do you want me to?”
“No, of course not, but it’s not about wanting now, Frank, it’s about having to. …”
Frank watched his mother as she scanned his face with bewilderment and he smiled lightly to ease her concern. “It’ll be fine – you shouldn’t worry about me, Ma. I’ll be alright.”
“But Frank, I do worry. You don’t seem to realise …”
“I do realise – I do. I know the country’s in recession. I know businesses are closing – have closed – but that’s just the thing … I don’t want to be a banker or a builder or any of those things. So that doesn’t affect me.”
“But it’s more than just those jobs, Frank. It’s everywhere. …”
“Not everywhere, Ma. Jobs in the green sector are growing. They need …”
“The green sector …? “. His mother looked suddenly puzzled.
“Mm … renewable energy, environmental management – there are companies that are developing wind farms and groups looking into sustainable development. Ireland could build its long term economic future on those kinds of things. And the courses in Environmental Science at Trinity and DCU …”
His mother had been staring at him as if he were a stranger. But her baffled gaze had broken to look above Frank’s head. He turned. His father was standing in the kitchen doorway. Both his parents looked almost frozen – like pipistrelles caught in an early sunrise.
The brief silence was potent. And disturbing. Frank brought his mind from imagining his father as a stricken bat and continued talking. “… and if I get a scholarship, that – and the monitoring work on the wetland the researchers have said I could have – should cover most of the costs for my degree. … “ He swallowed. “The people from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said the Green Economy’s growing – not just in Energy, Forestry, Recycling … but Tourism, … Financial Services … we’re at the forefront in some research and ‘cleantech’ product development…” Frank faltered. He wasn’t used to hearing his own voice for longer than the occasional sentence. And he was suddenly drained. “… Well, it’s … the future … for Ireland … and … that’s what I’ll be doing.” He couldn’t say any more. People and furniture and walls could truly exhaust him.
The kitchen was quiet. There was no rustle of leaves. No lapping of water on a muddy bank.
“Frank …” his father’s voice was low and clear, “you always were a strange wee lad …” He shook his head gently as disbelief turned to revelation. “… but you might just become … a lion of a man.”