- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
Children have many worlds through which they are free to roam. It is an ability that rapidly fades with age in most of us, for it is feared and discouraged by the adult world. Yet occasionally, if it is properly nurtured and exercised, this faculty can survive in a person for as long as life itself.
My childhood was spent in a little market town named Ballyrowan on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It was also a smuggling town and a recruitment and training centre for the IRA, but none of that mattered to me. Ballyrowan was simply my world, the only place of which I had any direct knowledge. It had a river where you could swim in the summer and woods where you could play chasing games and cowboys and Indians, a graveyard where you could play ghosts and vampires in the winter evenings and lots of derelict and abandoned farmhouses on the outskirts where you could play king of the castle or knights and dragons or "house" if you were a girl. There were a few adults around, including my father and mother, but they didn't count for very much and we only interacted with them when we needed something or when they had demands to make of us, such as going to school or going to bed or looking after little brothers. They weren't of any real significance in our lives. All, that is, except one, the old man we called the Rainbow Man.
It was no great mystery how he got that name, because he was to all outward appearances a walking rainbow. He had an obsessive love of brightly coloured pieces of cloth, the brighter the better, and gaudy costume jewellery of all kinds, and knowing this people would give him their unwanted garishly coloured curtains or chair covers or scraps of fabric, or the play-jewellery that their children had outgrown; partly out of kindness and partly out of curiosity to see what use the Rainbow Man would find for them. For the Rainbow Man was an artist, and his canvas was himself. He would find ways to wrap gaily coloured pieces of old fabric around his head to simulate a Maharajah's turban, and ways to turn discarded beach-towels and chair coverings into elegant kilts and togas and flowing caftans. Nothing was wasted. A thin left-over strip of some lurid purple artificial fibre would find a role as a belt or a scarf or a headband or an accessory worn around the ankle or the wrist. Every day the Rainbow Man would wander the streets and surrounding lanes of Ballyrowan wearing a new ensemble, each one more dazzling and inventive than the last.
Families driving through the town would alert their children in advance to look out for him, and if they were lucky enough to spot him, the youngest child would be handed a three penny bit or a six pence to give to him. Offerings of this kind he always accepted with a polite "God bless you” and nobody saw any harm in it, the notion of slightly deranged adult males posing a threat to children having yet to enter the public consciousness.
The Rainbow Man was a local tourist attraction, like the monument to William Allingham in the town square or the carving of the Fiddler of Dooney on the Sligo Road.
As children, we were able to get to know the Rainbow Man a lot better than the adults, and to listen in to the complex one-sided conversations that he carried on with his ever-present invisible companions.
"Oh, youse won't be laughing tomorrow, when they crown me king," he would tell them, or "Only one of youse is coming with me when I go to Mars" or "I know youse have got my son's head in a bucket, but I don't care, what did that boy ever do for me?" and so on. The mere contingencies of reality were never allowed to impinge on the conversations between the Rainbow Man and his voices.
As we followed him around we joined in these conversations with enthusiasm, either inventing our own unseen respondents or attempting to contribute something to the Rainbow Man's dialogues. Occasionally, he would acknowledge our presence also, and he was never lacking in courtesy even to the youngest of us, but usually he was too preoccupied with some more ethereal exchange of his own to pay us very much heed.
With the passage of time and under the influence of his fine example we developed our own techniques of communication with the unseen world, and tried to create voices with particular interests and attributes and consistent personalities. The people I spoke to included St. Francis of Assisi whose life we had been learning about at school, a robot space traveller from a remote galaxy, and a beautiful fairy princess who could sprinkle me with star dust that enabled me to fly like Peter Pan and Wendy.
The fashion for children to carry on conversations with their invisible companions spread rapidly through the nine and ten-year-old age group in Ballyrowan.
Fathers and particularly mothers started to become alarmed and the phenomenon became talked about in the local Women's Institute and obscure sub-committees of the Roman Catholic Church. Inevitably, the Rainbow Man became ostracised, no longer to be accepted or encouraged by respectable society in Ballyrowan. Unwittingly, our mimicry of the Rainbow Man's interesting affliction had sewn the seeds of his destruction. Madness in a (literally) colourful vagrant might be viewed as quaint, but if it was of a contagious kind that infected the children of the town then it had to be viewed as an evil.
Alarmed mothers forbade their offspring to talk to the Rainbow Man, or to themselves, or to have anything more to do with him. The flow of three penny bits and six pences diminished to a trickle, as did the gifts of cloth and baubles from previously well-meaning members of the adult community. Of course, there were children who still managed to smuggle scraps of food to the Rainbow Man, rather in the manner of Red Cross parcels for political prisoners, and sometimes they even managed to get him what he seemed to hunger for even more, his beloved scraps of brightly coloured cloth. But with the odds so heavily stacked against them those responsible for these kindly acts of insubordination were quickly brought into line.
The Rainbow Man was seen less and less in the streets of Ballyrowan. When he was, he seemed subdued and less colourful, his retinue of children missing, his dazzling attire slowly fading to pastel due to non-renewal and the slow accumulation of dust and grime. He spoke more quietly to his voices and walked more slowly, unable to comprehend the reasons for the sudden change in his fortunes.
Then came the inevitable. Late one Saturday night, down a narrow alley by the side of the local cinema, two old men who had gone down the hill discovered the body of the Rainbow Man, small and crumpled and faded to a neutral grey. From the loudspeakers behind the screen, powerful and distinct voices filled the night air, but the Rainbow Man was no longer able to hear them.
But those who have never lived are in the end the hardest of all to kill, and in the minds of that uniquely privileged generation of Ballyrowan's children at least some of the voices lived on and grew stronger with every passing year, until they moved out to populate the pages of a hundred novels and a thousand stories, and thus became immortal.