Everyone but undergrads knows it is bad form to talk in the library. During my early days as a student in Trinity College I took to sitting up on the fifth floor of the Berkley Library, where the theology books and those on the history of religion were to be found. We called it ‘the gods,’ not so much for the sacredness of the content of the shelves but for the seriousness with which the postgrads took themselves up there. It was a dangerous location for an underling to be perched, but I liked the thrill of it. One afternoon I will never forget was when Rossa came up to my desk for a chat.
In what we took to be hushed tones we were catching up on something or other when a shadow fell over us. It was like the eerie moment of an eclipse. Rossa’s face grew pale and his mouth fell slack. His eyes had taken on the forty yard stare of a US Marine after a long tour on the trail in Vietnam. If I were the earth, and he the moon, he was reflecting to me the light of a terrible sun. Knowing that someone – or something – else had entered into our orbit, and that the feeling of this arrival did not sit well with my waters, I quickly went over in my head all the people who might be out to kill either of us. We were young, and a few names came to mind.
Twisting my head gingerly around, grimacing like a chimp, I came face to face with Lidia. People had warned me about risking life and limb on the fifth floor. They had warned me of Lidia, but did I listen?! At that moment the shadow needed no other explanation. Lidia cut an imposing figure, and it was patently obvious she was a force to be reckoned with. This wasn’t a person. This was a force of nature.
She was staring right at me. No. She was glaring through me. Why me? Rossa was talking too! Rossa was on his feet and we both knew he had the best chance of making a run for it, if he hadn’t been – like me – petrified like Lot’s wife or a rabbit in headlights. I was sitting directly beneath this very angry looking woman expecting the avalanche to happen at any second.
“Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha olam…” Rossa was muttering a prayer in Hebrew as I began to examine my conscience and think of the words to the prayer for a happy death. This wasn’t going to end well. Without a word being spoken Lidia lifted her pointer finger to her lips, sucked in all the air in the room, curled her face up into something approximating a Rottweiler about to sneeze, and blasted out an earth shaking “Shhh!”
For the length of time her thunderous Shhh lasted Rossa and I felt like we were in a NASA wind tunnel. Our hair was blowing in the wind, and I felt like we were surfers standing atop our boards on Big Wednesday. It ended, and Lidia snapped around and marched back to her desk. The sun returned and the birds began to sing. We stared at one another in shock, and did the only thing we could. We broke out laughing. We weren’t trying to be rude. It was a nervous laugh. Trust me; it was a very nervous laugh.
After a few more hours of reading – in perfect silence – I packed up my books and made for the door and the elevator. I tip-toed out of that library. Once in the lift my calm returned to me and I let out a tiny sigh of relief. I pressed the button for the ground floor and the doors started to close. As both chrome panels of the elevator doors were about to meet a black boot jammed between them. The doors again opened to reveal no other person than Lidia. It was going to be a long trip down.
“You can talk all you want in the lift you know,” she said as she waltzed in next to me. Thus began a twelve year friendship, and one that has had about as many ups and downs as that bloody elevator.
Lidia was laid to rest today after getting suddenly – remarkably suddenly – sick. Her death has given everyone whiplash, so it could be said that she remained true to herself even to the end. She hasn’t been far from my thoughts these past few days; the usual stuff, fondness and regret. For a while we lived on the same street. This past few years we have lived only two streets apart and we’ve seen a little less of one another. When I first moved into “Corpse House,” as she so affectionately called it (that’s a whole other story), she arrived with a bucket of cleaning equipment and insisted that she help me “purify” the living room carpet.
She was a militant Atheist and an even more militant Feminist, and never let either of those two sides down – never, not even for a minute. It’s hard to say everything she was and meant. It was complicated; sometimes awesome craic and sometimes unrelenting flack. She never forgave me, I’m sure, for presenting a paper on Superman at the Irish Society for the Study of the Ancient Near East conference she put so much work into organising. Superman? What was I even thinking?!
Well, now that she has gone off on her own path of truth, this phase of our friendship has come to an end. Tonight I have found myself hoping she’s wrong about all that Atheism business. Usually I like to think that I respect other people’s decisions on such matters, and usually I do. Only tonight I don’t like the idea of never seeing her again. No sooner have I written those words than I can see her disapproving frown. Acht well.