11. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin”, (6)

 

PART III

CELTIC IDYLL continued

 

Gone the gaiety of yesterday’s outing. At the outskirts of Ard, Mannion’s sign glinted appealing but vainly to the occupants of the passing car. Father Dan held steady on to Mary Molly’s where the feet of the three disgruntled travelers barely touched ground before SueAnne ran from the cottage, throaty cries cooing greetings.

“We’ve been waiting and waiting for you. What took you so long? A whole kettle of water boiled away. The second is on the simmer this very minute. Tea is in the pot. Fresh scones on the table. We have great news.” She linked her arm through Mama’s heedless of the uninterrupted flood of invective spewing from her parent’s lips.

The mean trip from the Arans put paid to the solemn vows spoken aloud or formed in silence to withhold absolution from the transgressors forever if need be. SueAnne’s offer of tea was all it took for Father Dan to break down and sink onto Mary Molly’s rocker, extending a weak hand for the promised cup. Declan languished in the doorway, legs akimbo, unwilling to enter, unable to fix on another plan.

“So. Declan, you’ve decided to come out of hiding. Áine and I could have used you on the sail home. Where were you? Nowhere to be found. Lucky we didn’t drown. You’d have a hard time explaining that to Mamo and Mary Molly.”

Declan glared from the window sill not ready for forgiveness, but unable to say no to tea. Mama, too hungry and thirsty to push away the plate of scones, took two.

Mamo, I’ve found a cottage for you. Thick stone walls. Timber floor. Dry turf shed. Tall trees. Not many of those in Conamara. The hunger saw to that. A boreen to the bay.”

“What are you talking about? Susie, take your arm off me. You are as bad as he is. You run off in the middle of the night leaving Father Dan and me to face the music. The whole island is talking about you.”

“Oh, Mama, we just went for a sail. It was a beautiful night. Here we are. You’re not angry with us, are you, Father Dan? A sail on the Máire Rua, for heaven’s sake! Declan, will you please explain we did it for the craic?”

The plea breached Declan’s weakening hostility. “Sure, what’s the harm? Pour me another cup, SueAnne. I wouldn’t mind a scone, if Micheál didn’t grab them all.”

“What’s this about a cottage? Explain yourself.”

“It’s the Montblanc place, Father. The daughter in Australia is being married. Old Ronald’s letting on one of the Royals will be in attendance. He needs someone to light the Conamara fires, keep the banshees away while entertaining the Queen. Lady Montblanc was in the shop when Áine and I picked up milk for your tea. That Brit thought she landed on her feet meeting Mamo’s daughter. Believes Áine is a Scot. Took her by the hand, gave her kisses on the cheek. End of story. Mamo has her own bed to sleep in.”

“Not like the Montblancs to act precipitously.” Father Dan was skeptical. “SueAnne, did you meet Ronnie?”

“Last of the Empire, right down to the mustache. I did a rough caricature as soon as I got home.” SueAnne retrieved her pad from the sideboard. “What do you think?”

“Quite captures our Cashel laird. When do they leave?”

“I’m driving the two of them to Shannon Saturday morning. You saw the car. Mr. Cuffe sent Mark. He dropped it off last night.”

“They should leave you keys to the Rover. What use is it in the shed? Those Brits, they’re mighty careful.”

“Mama and I don’t need the Rover, Micheál.”

“It’s a pity though.”

“Pity you can’t roar to Kinvara. Showing off. I’ll borrow your car for a bit if you don’t mind, SueAnne. Round up Noel and Liam. Drop supplies on the Milucra. Leave it on the pier. If I get to it, I can make it past Slyne Head before dark. Tie up at Westport for the night.”

“You can’t sail to Portsalon. We’ve planned dinner at the Ostan. It’s to be a feast. Wait till tomorrow.”

“I’m not chancing another night with the likes of Micheál Ó Flaharta. I’ll not be safe till I’m on the deck of the Milucra. Good luck in your new home, Mrs. Hutcheson. You won’t forget Donegal, SueAnne?”

“I hate your going.” SueAnne stifled a sense of betrayal. “Mama and I will be up before you know it. Take care of yourself, Declan. We loved the sail.”

Mama kissed the wincing captain before he could duck through the doorway. “You tell Mr. Cuffe to save our room. I don’t know if I’m going to like living in an Englishman’s house.”

“I’ll go with Declan.” Micheál was on his feet. “It’s up to me to see he comes to no harm at Mannion’s. Make sure he gets off without getting into more mischief. I may run up to Dublin, myself. See if I can talk the Merc into coming home. You drive the Brits to the airport in Father Dan’s car, Áine. I’ll be back in a day or two. Slán.”

“He can’t do that. Don’t let him take our car. You go get him.”

“It’s all right, Clara.” Father Dan spoke carefully. “He’ll soon be back. In the meantime my little bomb will do for us. It has been an exhausting few hours. You and I will take a little lie-in while SueAnne tidies up. This evening we three will enjoy our lamb at the Ostan. Perhaps, four would be the better number. Let us make Emir our guest. There should be music, and Emir is great for the old ballads. I believe you will enjoy her, Clara.”

 

“I’m telling you, Hanrahan, I don’t know if they are couriers or not. If they are, I’ll take care of them in Conamara. We can count on Declan in Donegal. It’s you, I worry about. We never know where you Dubs come down.”

“You are too harsh on us, Mick. We managed the Post Office in ‘16. Not a Gaeltacht man in sight.”

“Your history is bad. I’ll give you a tour of Pearse’s cabin, if you ever make it West.”

“What would you have me do? Send Ronán to Belfast? Demand Stormont turn over dossiers on suspected courier activity?”

“Cute. Have you checked the Yanks on your guest list since Mrs. Hutcheson was here? Anyone following them?”

“That’s my job, Mick, keeping tabs for the lads. I’ve had no complaints. You won’t read accounts of knee-capping in Dublin. You notice my legs work as well as they did when I was a boy pitching rocks in the tenements. No, none of the Southie crowd. Queens is quiet. Golfers is what we are reduced to.”

“Get in touch with Nora if anything turns up.”

“You’re a born commander, Mick. Quick to tell the troops what they already know.”

“No headlines, Hanrahan. American Women Shot on Border. I.R.A. Denies Involvement. So.”

Micheál Ó Flaharta dissolved into the crowd crossing the Liffey on the Ha’penny bridge. Mr. Hanrahan continued east on his solitary morning stroll to the Shelbourne.

 

Micheál’s sales pitch didn’t do justice to the remnants of the Montblanc estate. The fifty thousand acres of its glory days parceled out among Irish tenant farmers after Independence, the Lord kept a cluster of sheds and cabins surrounded by prickly hawthorne hedges. No sheep grazed the grass rimming Bertraghboy Bay, languid mock orange blossoms swayed free of ravenous nibbles. Pinioned by hemp bonnets, thatched outbuildings lined the broad allée to the Montblanc cottage. Roses crowded a white stone terrace, interruptions of sunlight rippling across an arcade of arched doors.

SueAnne, leaning against one of those arched doors while appraising her domain, was greeted by an unexpected sight.

“We have company, Mama.”

A skeletal man in ancient jodhpurs, wool serge billowing out from narrow shanks, made his way past the hawthorne hedge. A tweed jacket, buttoned and belted, nipped at the waist, fashioned the appearance of an exotic bloom rising from a fleshy stock.

Mama kneading bread dough, advanced a step out of the kitchen. “Who is it, Susie? Is it someone we know?”

“Irish gentry, I’d say, Mama.” SueAnne stepped onto the terrace. “Hello!”

The advancing figure raised his head, but offered no sign of greeting. Reaching the terrace, he confronted SueAnne’s expectant air.

“I’m Joseph.”

They were the bluest eyes she had ever seen, the unclouded blue of a Conamara sky. His face, brown as a potato skin, was smooth, and his cheeks glossed a delicate pink. A fluff of honey escaped when he doffed his cap, the tousled fringe receding at the temples wispy, yet thick enough for a feathery crown.

“I’m SueAnne.”

“That is what I have heard.” Joseph walked into the cottage, coming up short in front of Mama. “You are the mammy.” He looked at the dough on the kitchen table. “Where be the girleen?” Seeing the look of incomprehension, he explained. “Peggy bakes the bread for the Lady.”

“Peggy is visiting her sister in Boston,” SueAnne said.

“She was at the shop this morning.”

“Well, maybe, she hasn’t left yet, but she said she was going to Boston. I think that’s what she said. Maybe, I misunderstood.”

“You be right now. Peggy said she be going to her sister next week.” Joseph sat in a cabin chair by the fireplace, holding his cap on his lap.

SueAnne sat on the edge of the sofa, smiling.

“I feed the ponies.”

“Do we have ponies?”

“They be Pádraig’s ponies. He takes them to Ma’am Cross for the Fair. It is the biggest fair in the world.”

SueAnne, not knowing how to answer, stood up. “Would you care for a cup of tea, Joseph?”

“Yes, please.”

In the kitchen, Mama was indignant. “What is that old fool doing here?”

“Shhhh, Mama. He’ll hear you.”

“What’s he doing here anyway?”

“He’s a neighbor. He’s visiting. That’s what people do in Ireland. They drop in for tea. It’s really very nice, isn’t it? I thought we had cookies left from yesterday. Where are they?” SueAnne groped feverishly in the cupboard, dislodged a package from behind several tins of tea. “Tea will be ready in a minute, Joseph.” She pulled a small table beside him, set down the plate of cream puffs, and fled back to the kitchen.

After numerous trips laden with sugar bowl, creamer, a dish containing thinly sliced lemon, linen napkins and engraved teaspoons, SueAnne placed the freshly brewed pot of tea beside china cups. Ceremoniously, she poured the first cup for Joseph, handing the delicate saucer, her fingers gently holding the rim, to her guest.

“The tea is weak, SueAnne.” Joseph handed the cup back. Lifting the lid of the teapot, he stirred vigorously, took back the cup, emptied its contents into the pot and poured out a second, darker brew which he larded with milk and sugar. SueAnne watched, embarrassed at her faux pas. Joseph drank the tea in quick gulps. “Thank you.” He rose, and put on his cap. “I will come tomorrow when I finish with the ponies.” He stopped in front of SueAnne. “They say you have no man.” As an afterthought, he added, “Goodbye, Mammy.”

SueAnne dogged behind him. “Goodbye, Joseph.”

Mama was beside herself. “How did he get in? That’s not the road back there. People shouldn’t barge in like that. If he comes back, you tell him to go away.”

“You can’t do that, Mama,” SueAnne said earnestly. “We’re in Ireland.”

That evening the telephone rang. It was Micheál. “I haven’t been gone a week, and already you are seeing other men.”

“What do you mean?”

“The pony feeder put on his moth-eaten fair jacket and came calling. You gave him tea. You’ll never get rid of him. Maybe, Mamo will take him off your hands.”

“How did you know Joseph was here?”

“You think Pádraig didn’t see him march along the old Bianconi stage line straight to Ronnie’s back stile?”

“Mama wondered how he got in. I didn’t see him until he came around the hedge. He’s harmless, isn’t he?”

“Harmless? You’ll probably end at the altar. Spend your days carrying buckets of oats for Conamara ponies.”

“At least Joseph comes to see us, which is more than I can say for you.”

“I have work to do. Try to stay out of trouble till I get there, Áine. I can’t be there to take care of you all the time.”

“Micheál!”

Slán.”

Each morning after feeding the ponies, Joseph walked the overgrown stage track, climbing the stile for his cup of tea with SueAnne. If she was out, he questioned Mama on her whereabouts.

“Where be SueAnne, Mammy?”

“Susie’s on errands, Joseph. You might as well leave. I don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“I be seeing her tomorrow.”

One spectacularly sunny day while arranging chocolate biscuits on a plate for Joseph, SueAnne heard a voice from the terrace. “Miss Larkin.” A woman wearing a cotton print dress crossed the threshold, advancing circumspectly toward the kitchen. “I’m Aileen O’Brian. Lady Montblanc said I should call. Hello, Joseph. Are the ponies fed?”

“I be feeding them years and years, Aileen.”

“I suppose you think you’ll be drinking Miss Larkin’s tea for years and years. Ronnie will toss you into the bog, if he finds you sitting in his best cabin chair. You go home now, Joseph. I want to speak with Miss Larkin.”

Joseph walked unhurriedly to the door. “I’ll be wanting tea tomorrow, Mammy.”

Aileen O’Brian sank onto the overstuffed sofa. “Lady Montblanc would go mad if she knew Joseph was in her sitting room.” She accepted SueAnne’s offer of tea. “Do you mind if I smoke?” She opened the pack of Players, and extended it to SueAnne.

“No, thanks.”

“Mrs. Hutcheson smokes they tell me.” She smiled as Mama selected a cigarette. “Every day I promise Séamus I’ll give up the fags, but I never do. Nerves.”

Mama nodded. “Jack was a chain smoker. I gave it up years ago, but when we sailed with Declan, I started again. It helped me sit still. It’s too late now to think about quitting again.” She leaned back, a cabal of two. “Susie never smoked.”

“Why would Lady Montblanc object to my giving Joseph tea?” SueAnne, ignoring Mama’s coy intrigue, remained standing, uncomfortable at the thought of displeasing her hosts.

“Joseph is a peasant, SueAnne,” Aileen said dryly. “Lord Montblanc would never give him run of the place. At the heel of the hunt all Irish are peasants to the Montblancs. The Brits don’t care much for you Americans, either.” She looked out the window. “You know they think themselves very good, the English.”

“Oh, they think Susie is a Scot,” Mama reassured Aileen. “I don’t know where they got that idea. She is as American as apple pie.”

SueAnne struggled with a second question. “Is it just Joseph Lady Montblanc would object to having tea here? I thought he looked elegant in that tweed jacket coming up the lawn. I told Mama we were being visited by gentry.”

Aileen chortled. “If you can’t tell Joseph from gentry, you have a thing or two to learn, Miss Larkin. Oh, my.” She began laughing. “You better talk to me before going dancing.”

SueAnne nodded weakly wondering how much Aileen knew about their sojourn in Ard, as Mama squirmed in her chair, but she wouldn’t be put off.

“What should I do about Joseph? He walked right in as though he had been doing it all his life. I like him. He has the most beautiful eyes. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And, it’s SueAnne and Clara, please.”

“You’ll not hurt his feelings, SueAnne. He knows well enough he’s not allowed here. He’s down at Maizie’s right now telling her what a great time you have for him, and won’t it be a shame when the old lord comes home. Ah, what’s the harm? When Ronnie gets back, Joseph will go to the back door the way he always has. No remarks passed.”

SueAnne stood, reticent, brooding.

“Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Hutcheson. I better get back home. Attend my work. Séamus is painting the front of the house. He won’t get on the ladder unless I am there to see him fall.” She paused at the door. “It’s nice you have your own car now, awkward depending on Father Dan for transport. Donegal license. Did they bring it down to you? A pity Ronnie didn’t give you the Rover to drive. They don’t care about another’s troubles. There is music at Ballynahinch tonight. It starts at ten. Come. Bring your mother.” Aileen disappeared around the corner of the cottage.

“I’m not going anywhere at ten o’clock.”

“Please come, Mama. It will be fun. We haven’t been any where since we moved into this house. No one comes to see us but Joseph, and Micheál, for those few minutes, when he and Jimmie Fada dropped off the car.”

“We’ve only been here five days, Susie.”

“Six.”

“Father Dan took you shopping one day. He came for dinner, or doesn’t he count?”

“Father Dan is in Dublin. Micheál has forgotten us. If we’re not going to make new friends, we might as well go back to Montana.”

“All right. I’ll go, but I’m too old to go gadding about all night.”

They found Aileen seated at a table cornered between a wall and the Ballynahinch bar. Locals dressed in dark trousers and jackets, woolen vests buttoned over lean chests, crowded the bar. Hotel guests thronged tables scattered across a polished tile floor. The music had already started.

A tall, gaunt man, domiciled on the stool he occupied nights he wasn’t telling lies to a school of fishermen, loomed over Aileen. Séamus O’Brian gillied at the Castle, drolly pointing out the big ones for men untaught in the art of singing a line to rising fish. “Ah,” he would protest, when they returned to the hotel empty handed, “I wasn’t good enough.” He regarded the Yanks somberly as they were introduced, not standing, preferring to meet them at eye level. “You’re staying in Ronnie’s house. You must feel very grand. I don’t know for sure, but I think some may have an eye on your daughter, Mrs. Hutcheson. I would keep her close, if I were you.”

“Séamus, stop fooling around. You’ll alarm Clara. Séamus wants to buy you a drink. Put your money away, SueAnne. Séamus’s feelings would be hurt.”

Mama responded hesitantly to Aileen’s low inquiries. “I like Ballynahinch better than Mannion’s. There isn’t all that Irish. You can’t understand what anyone is saying.”

Séamus, immersed in conversation with the fellow next to him, interrupted the talk, leaning toward Mama, a wicked glint in his eyes. “They say you were on holidays in Ard. ‘Tis a terrible, wild place.”

“Don’t mind him, Clara. His people are from Ard.”

“Am I here now?” Séamus challenged Aileen. “The truth is they don’t know me. I don’t know them. I tell you, Miss Larkin, best not get close to the folks of the sea. They’ll be humbugging you. Bad as tinkers.” He turned back to his pint.

“Boats! I’d not married Séamus if Tommy Conneely hadn’t pestered me night and day to go to the islands. He was mad about Bofin. Had grand plans for a hotel at the end of the world.” Aileen’s tight mouth softened. “He was lovely. His boy brings his ladeen to us on holidays. As handsome as Tommy. He bought a pub in Youghl. Awash in whiskey.”

“You’ve never sailed on a Hooker?”

“By christ, no. You shouldn’t either, SueAnne. You’ll drown for sure. Those men go to mass before they sail, and their widows go after. It is fearsome, the sea.”

Mama, torn between the desire to capture the spotlight with the story of Susie’s midnight escape from the Arans and an innate caution around strangers, squirmed, tapping her foot, drumming her fingers on her glass. Aware of the signs, SueAnne sought to forestall disaster.

“Do you have sheep, Aileen?”

“I’d say so. Séamus couldn’t sleep at night if he didn’t have sheep to count. I have walked my legs into the ground looking for some lost ewe that wouldn’t bring a pound at the fair. You don’t mind them dying, but you wouldn’t want them to suffer.”

“They have sheep at Ard.” Mama wasn’t quite ready to let the opportunity pass. “Father Dan said everyone slaughters his own, that’s why the butcher counter is full of rotten meat.”

“He didn’t say it was rotten, Mama. He said there wasn’t much of it, because it was only for emergencies.”

“That’s not what he said at all. He said you couldn’t get anything worth eating at the shop. Do you kill your own sheep, Aileen?”

“We might have a bit of fresh lamb in the spring. No harm in that. Around here we sell at the Recess mart. You won’t find many from Ard there. It would be a waste of time. The sheep out there are so scrawny you wouldn’t get much for them. They’re too busy fooling around with those boats to have time for the poor creatures.”

“We took the ferry to Aran with Father Dan.” Mama let the fact drop innocently. “It was different than Declan’s fishing boat. Almost like a bus.”

“Jack Fahey told Paddy Pat he saw two American ladies with the Father when he visited his sister on Inishmaan. He didn’t see you, SueAnne, when he crossed back with Mrs. Hutcheson and Father Dan.” Aileen added a splash of water to a newly arrived drink. “Was it Tim Bailey keeping you away from your old mother?”

“Why, it wasn’t Tim Bailey at all. It was Micheál Ó Flaharta. He sailed off with Susie in the middle of the night, left Declan and Father Dan and me to face the music the next morning. Declan said it was a terrible thing, but Father Dan said we must remain calm.”

“We’ll keep SueAnne safe from Micheál Ó Flaharta, Clara.” Aileen compressed her lips, striving to suppress satisfaction at Mama’s revelation. “We’ll leave that man to Mary Molly. She’s well used to him. We have plenty of nice men here, if SueAnne wants a bit of fun. We don’t dance at Ma’am cross like the old days – ” Her voice trailed off.

A fury of sound, absent earlier in the evening, exploded from the musicians seated by the open fire. A rollicking “Eileen Ni Riordain” split the air. Heads turned. A second fiddler had joined the group, chair atilt, foot braced on the fireplace tender. From along the wall, a low voice called, “Good man, Micheál.”

“We cannot get rid of him.” Aileen huddled over her drink. “Look at your daughter, Clara. All smiles. She would be better off with Joseph.”

“Joseph is an old fool. He dreamed he married Susie, and I gave him a lot of money as a dowry, as if I have to pay to get rid of her.”

“Oh, but, isn’t he good?” The farmer seated next to Séamus leaned back, and took a turn on his stool. “There’s no better at the fiddle than Micheál Ó Flaharta. Mick’s lad won the All-Ireland three times before those judges had to admit it to themselves. He was the best. Told him to go home. Give a lessor man a chance. Micheál! I was telling these ladies you are the best, and, by dab, you are. Let me buy you a pint. Des pull one for Séamus and the fiddler before you shutter the windows. And, don’t forget the ladies. Paddy, is it?”

Micheál crowded in beside Mama. “How you keepin’, Mamo? Maybe you’d like me to sit by you since I’m so grand. Hello, Aileen.”

“Hello, Micheál.” Aileen’s face bore the look of innocent inquiry. “I thought I might have a chance to chat with Clíona. I haven’t seen her since her holiday. Maizie said Greystones must not agreed with her, she looks so mournful now she’s back. Is she feeling poorly?”

“Clíona is lonesome for some Dublin toff who fed her a lot of lies. Never let a chancer take you on his knee, you know that, Aileen. No good will come of it. Isn’t it a pity?” Micheál’s voice carried in it a deep sense of aggravation. “Nothing to be done.” The pub lights dimmed. “Time to go before Des puts us out. Cáíth siorradh.” He touched SueAnne’s shoulder. “Take Mamo home. Come to Roundstone. Park at the pier next to the Merc. Tap on the window at Dowd’s. The curtains will be closed, but they’ll let you in. Can you remember all that?”

She could. And did.

“You drive slow. Did you get lost? This is James B. He’s my solicitor.”

SueAnne extended her hand to a waspish old man.

James B. ignored it. “Where did you find her, Micheál? Another cousin?” He tapped the seat next to him. “Sit here, girleen. I’ll tell you about the lad. He is no good. Look at him. Wild as they come. Might he be one of the hard men? Aw! I’d be careful.”

“Sure there is a part of him that’s hard,” a nearby drinker snickered.

“Whisht, Bartley” James B. issued a sharp rebuke. “Don’t be bold.”

“This is Máirtín. He blows things up.” Micheál jerked his thumb toward a man sitting beside James B.

“Máirtín is a dynamiter.” James B. felt the need of further explanation. “Strangers believe the rock strewn around Conamara is the work of the hand of God. Not atall. It is Máirtín’s rubble. The Bens are a constant worry to me. I fear one morning I’ll wake. Our mountains will be gone.” James B.’s shoulders shook in silent laughter.

“He’s handsome, don’t you think? You’d take him home with you, wouldn’t you?” Micheál nudged Máirtín.

“My rambling days are finished. Mary sees to that.” Blond and shining as a Viking, Máirtín held his arms close, huge hands resting on his knees. An open shirt revealed a youth’s throat, smooth and reddened by the early spring sun.

“Mary does what she can to keep him out of trouble. He has no respect, will do anything for a few quid. An English professor wanted sand from Dog’s Bay to stuff into his test tubes. Máirtín drove his JCB out on the beach. Before he could scoop up a bagful, the local priest threw himself in front of it. Said it was an archeological dig Máirtín was destroying, and Ireland’s culture along with it. The Irish Times sent a reporter. Made Máirtín famous.”

“Sure, it was only white sand I was after. It’s getting so a man can’t make a living in Conamara. Begrudgers lining the road. Might as well immigrate to Australia.” Máirtín threw back his head and sang a few bars. “Waltzing Matilda., waltzing Matilda, you’ll come awaltzing Matilda with me.”

“Stop. Is that all you know? Every place we go, it’s that bloody song. You’ve put James B. into a trance.”

The solicitor’s head wobbled on his chest, body banking precariously. Micheál gave him a brisk shake. “I’m making a move.”

James B.’s eyes blinked open. “Slán, Micheál,” he muttered. “Thanks be to God for friends like yourself.” He rocked back and forth. “What is that noise? Micheál, can’t you shut him up? I should have let the peelers take him.”

Across from Dowd’s masses of wild rose and fuschia twined across cobblestones sloping to the Roundstone pier, the sweet scent unsettling in the stench of yesterday’s catch. A trawler moored at the jetty rocked in a light breeze, rigging clanking.

“Forget those vehicles. Over here.”

Faint in the water, SueAnne discerned the elongated shape of a Conamara curragh.

“You better hurry. Maybe, I’ll leave without you.”

She lowered herself awkwardly into the narrow keel, clutching at oar locks for balance.

“Back here, where I can keep an eye on you. See that inlet, across and to your right. That’s home.” He pushed off, rowing with long, shallow pulls.

Close by the Máire Rua, Beryl’s excited bark lowered to a growl at an unfamiliar smell.

“I’ve brought you competition.” Micheál ruffled her ears. “You’ll have to be nice to me now.”

“Will she bite?” SueAnne shifted unsteadily in the curragh.

“It’s Beryl you should be asking. She has a mind of her own.”

“Beryl, I’m SueAnne.”

“She isn’t SueAnne at all, Beryl. She is Áine. If you two will get along, I’ll stir up the fire. You can have a bone. We’ll have tea. Warm yourself. I’ll put on the kettle. We’re in a bit of a fix, Áine. This is my home. I am at peace here. But you?” He gestured vaguely. “No curtains. One room. You live in fine hotels. That, I couldn’t do. So. What happens to us?”

“I don’t know.” SueAnne trembled, the exploding schoolhouse splintering her heart. “We are lost.”

“Lost. Is that it? Lost we are?”

“‘Oh, Lost!’” SueAnne began to laugh. “Tom Wolfe. ‘Oh, Lost!’”

“Who is this Tom Wolfe, now.”

“He was a writer. It was a book, is a book. ‘Oh, Lost!’” The hysteria Mama dreaded bubbled up.

Áine. Stop. Where are we going to live when we’re married?”

“Married?” SueAnne’s laughter died away. “I don’t want to get married.”

“Is this a game?”

“It’s not that, Micheál. It’s marriage, it’s not for me, it’s binding. There’s no freedom.”

“Freedom for what, Áine. Rambling? Or, is it the North, and then home? Father Dan was right. You are here on business, I’m entertainment. I’ll take you back.”

“Wait. I don’t know how this Northern thing started. Mama and I came to Ireland because we were unhappy. Well, I was unhappy. Mama was bored. I loved a man. He died. Life silenced to an echo. We left Montana, got here with a little money. I decided to just let life come. I never thought there would be anyone after Percy. I wanted, I don’t know – not easy – the other. Different voices. Unanticipated response. It’s risky. Sometimes everything crashes, but there are times you’re free of yourself. You free me from myself. If you’ll take me as I am, I’ll be here when Mama is gone.”

“So. It’s settled.”

 

“Where have you been? It is the middle of the day. Joseph came for his tea. I had to lie to him. Him and all his questions. Barging in without a by your leave. Not a moment’s privacy.”

“Please don’t be angry, Mama.” SueAnne drew her to a chair, leaned her head against Mama’s breast, hoping. “You know I was with Micheál. I don’t know how he happened, but I may be in love with him.”

“That scares me, Susie. Micheál has a reckless streak worse than the old bootleggers. Those men are all gone. Their kids live in tract homes. Ireland is still untamed, the way Missouri was back then. Everyone is stuck in the past. It’s not healthy.”

“Ireland is rash, indiscreet, unpredictable, wanton, even, but we can’t go back. I don’t want to go back. It’s doubtful they would put us in jail, not you, anyway. It would be ugly. You like Aileen and Father Dan and Declan. Nora is lovely, so is Mr. Cuffe. Say it’s okay, Mama. For a little while anyway.”

“We’ve been gone three months. What about Johnny? I sent him a postcard from Dublin with a picture of the Shelbourne. We’ve been going so fast, I haven’t written a letter or called or anything since. I can’t decide what to do. I know he’s frantic wondering where we are. It’s a terrible thing we’re doing to him.” Mama’s lower lip trembled.

SueAnne skittered to a full stop, mouth an “0”, eyes on an empty stage, breathe suspended. “What did you write, Mama?”

“I said, ‘Ireland is nice, but it is not Missouri. Jack.’”

“Mama, that is perfect. Johnny will know exactly what is going on. You are brilliant.”

“That is what Aileen always says. Brilliant.” Mama was pleased in spite of herself. She worried about what to write, hoping the police wouldn’t read the card. Come and clap them in prison, yet she was determined to let Johnny know where they were. If Susie thought it was all right, then it was. She bustled about, satisfied, forgetting for the moment the hectoring thought of Susie in love with that scoundrel.

“I’ll fix you a cup of tea.”

“Mama, I am exhausted. I’ve had it up to here,” SueAnne ran her hand across the top of her head, “with tea. I want a cup of coffee. Strong coffee. With cream and brown sugar. Maybe brandy. We’ll figure this out. Make a plan. Micheál is going to England for a month. We could ask him to call Johnny while he’s there, say we’re fine, ask him if he has any messages for us. Or, write a letter, have Micheál mail it from London. Better yet, I could drive over with him, call Johnny, fly back.”

“Those are crazy ideas. You think you’re in love with Micheál, but you hardly know him. He might lose the letter. There is no telling what he would say to your brother, if he telephoned him. Even if Johnny could understand what he was saying, he would wonder why a strange man was calling him. Johnny has enough to worry about.”

SueAnne didn’t answer, she was thinking. What she was thinking was Mama was right.

“Here’s your coffee. Did you hear what I said, or do I have to say it all over again.”

“I heard you, Mama. You’re right.” SueAnne took the cup thick with cream, added a hefty splash of brandy. “This is perfect. Where is yours?”

“I drank so much coffee waiting for you my stomach is queasy. What about Johnny? If you’re not going to ask Micheál to send a letter, or make a phone call, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, Mama. Let me think a minute. It would be awfully easy if I went to England with Micheál.” Mama glowered. “No, that’s not a good idea. How about this. I write a letter to Johnny. I put it with a letter to Lady Montblanc. Ask her to mail it from Sydney. I could tell her it was a prank I was playing on a friend. What do you think of that?”`

“What makes you think that Englishwoman wouldn’t open the letter?”

“If there is anything in this world I am sure of, it is that Lady Montblanc would never open a letter addressed to someone else, and would send it on the day it arrived. The Brits have not done one thing right in Ireland. It looks like they never will, but they have their standards.”

“Why can’t we just call him? All this pretending. Everyone in Montana has probably forgotten all about us. Who would know if we talked to Johnny on the telephone? Nobody.”

“True, we’ve probably been forgotten, but suppose the police were listening, what would happen then?”

Mama shivered.

SueAnne stalled.

If she could keep Johnny from worrying, prevent him, for another few weeks at least, from showing up on their Conamara doorstep, life would be sweet. She and Mama could settle in. Life with Micheál, illusory now, no more than a promise, would be – or not be.

“Mama, I have to go bed. I can’t keep my eyes open.”

Mama’s voice followed her. “If you’re not going to write a letter, we should go home. Face the music. Get it over with. Why is Micheál going to England? To pick up more women?”

“He’s going to play the fiddle, Mama, and I’m going to sleep.”

Moments later, a tap on a window pane alerted Mama to Aileen’s brisk entrance.

“Séamus and Paddy Pat are walking the commonage checking new lambs. They dropped me at Ronnie’s road. I thought I’d see how you were getting on. They won’t be long. I would take a glass of water. The sun is very warm today.”

Excluding Joseph, who was in a different category altogether, unexpected company, even if it was only Aileen who popped in uninvited at the drop of a hat, flustered Mama. She liked having a chance to comb her hair before visitors arrived.

“Would you like a cup of tea, Aileen?”

“No thank you, Clara.” There was a note of anticipation in Aileen’s voice.

“Shall we have a little brandy?” Mama’s voice faltered.

“Just a splash, Clara.” Aileen settled herself primly on the sofa. She lit a Player’s, offering one to Mama. “Paddy Pat saw SueAnne coming from Roundstone this morning, when he was cutting turf by the bog road.”

Mama raised her brandy glass.

“Where is SueAnne? I saw her car at the gate.”

“She is lying down.” Mama spoke in a low voice. “It’s that time of the month.”

“She seemed well enough in the car. Paddy Pat said she was smiling.”

“Susie isn’t one to complain. She just goes off by herself till she feels better. I’ve forgotten how it was, it was so long ago.”

Aileen looked unconvinced. “I suppose since she has nothing better to do, she can take a lie-in whenever she wants. Has Joseph been here today?”

Discomfited, Mama didn’t say anything.

“He still comes everyday for his tea, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” Mama spoke unwillingly, “he came while Susie was out. How many horses does Joseph feed?”

“He’s little enough work to do. Pádraig has the stud in Benlettery. Sells the foals in the fall. Joseph feeds seven mares and Aengus.” She stood up. “I better go. I don’t want to keep Séamus waiting.”

Mama tracked the disappearing figure with a sneaking suspicion the visit was prompted more by nosiness than an interest in their well-being. Remembrance of her eager disclosure at Ballynahinch about Susie’s sail with Micheál left her weak with self-contempt. Everyone in Conamara seemed to be watching them. Who was Paddy Pat anyway? What a ridiculous name. Cross and out of sorts, Mama, bent on tidying up, dropped Aileen’s brandy glass precariously bottoming inside Susie’s coffee cup, when the telephone distracted her attention with its double Irish ring.

“I’ll get it.”

“I thought you were asleep. Why didn’t you come out when Aileen was here?” Mama rounded the sofa, zeroing in on the Montblanc desk.

SueAnne lunged at the receiver, beating Mama by an arm’s length. “Hello.”

“You sound well.”

“I knew it was you. Where are you?”

“Bridie is stuffing a basket with food. She thinks the crossing takes six days instead of six hours. I’ll pick up a few quid selling ham and cheese to starving passengers.”

“I’d buy a sandwich, if it was offered.”

“Sandwiches you’ll have to do without. When next you see me, I’ll be flinging Saxon shillings at your feet. Áine.”

“Yes.”

“Come over the end of the month. Leave Mamo with Nora. She could use her. Bridie’s sister is back on holidays. Those two women do nothing but giggle all day. Nora is waiting on them hand and foot. They’ve got her serving them tea. Mamo would put a stop to that.” Micheál’s indignation dwindled off. “I’ll show you London. You’ll come. You will? You won’t?”

“Maybe. If I can. Maybe I can. I don’t know.”

“If you don’t fly over, I’ll have to come kidnap you. Instead of fiddling in the pub, I’ll be chasing after you. Everyone will be disgusted.” Micheál paused. “Is Mamo there? Put her on. Father Dan is missing her.”

“Father Dan wants to talk to you, Mama.”

“What does he want? Tell him I’m busy.”

SueAnne feigned astonishment.

“Oh, all right. Give me that phone. Hello, Father Dan.”

“Clara,” Father Dan’s cheerfulness surged across the island. “It’s wonderful to talk with you. Are you comfortable in Ronnie’s palace? Micheál tells me you are great friends with Aileen O’Brian. She is a fine woman, Clara. Her people are from Ma’am. Aileen’s father worked the largest sheep farm in Conamara. It is all Séamus can do to rid himself of the money the old man spent his lifetime laying up. High marks to Séamus, he is working at it. He may finish the job before I read over him. No harm. He suits Aileen. That is what counts.”

Mama frowned at this warm endorsement of Aileen, but before she could reply, Father Dan was on again.

“Clara, I have a message for you. An old friend of mine, Father Conlan – he’s a Donegal man from Ramelton, a story teller, Clara, brilliant scholar – called from Boston this morning. Father Conlan dined with the Blaney’s last evening. They’re a Portsalon family, he knew them as a lad, and Mary Molly was there with her niece who is married to a Rathmullan McGinley. When Mary Molly heard Father Conlan and I studied together at Maynooth, she asked if he would please pass along a few words next we chatted.

“Mary Molly sends her apologies for not welcoming you at her own door. She is having difficulties attending to everyone who makes a claim on her. She will be back in Ard before June is out, and, God willing, will be with you when the Orangemen march. You know, Clara, we have droves of friends escaping that turbulent week of Protestant riot and revelry. It is a great time in Conamara, St. MacDara’s Day. Up North the Royal Irish Constabulary is kept busy keeping the Apprentice Boys out of trouble at Portaferry, leaving them little time to bother the Fenian lads at their own work.

“Mary Molly feels a special connection with you, Clara, and requested I speak directly to you rather than to SueAnne. She was firm in insisting you know all the whys and wherefores and leaves it with you to decipher for your daughter the Boston delay. Please, Clara, do explain all this in your own way so SueAnne will be clear in her mind what the situation is, and extend Mary Molly’s apologies. Don’t neglect to tell her Mary Molly will be with you before July 12.

“Nora is tugging at my sleeve. I fear I am late. The Bishop is begging for my attendance, and will brook no excuse. Slán, dear Clara. God bless.”

Mama faced SueAnne in total bafflement.

“Does he want to talk to me?”

“He hung up.”

“What did he say?”

“Don’t go asking me a lot of questions, Susie.”

Amazed at Mama’s reaction to Father Dan’s call, Sue Anne walked aimlessly through the heather contemplating this turn of events. Life was complicated. It offered treasures when you least expected them, then, threw up all kinds of distractions. Here was Micheál in love with her, she, by any reckoning, marooned on the cusp of damning middle age. It didn’t seem to matter to him, or to her either, this unnerving detail. She believed she had solved the letter problem, when, wham! a secretive call between Mama and Father Dan launched Mama off into another world. What was that all about? Couldn’t be too serious. Patience. Pampering. That was what was called for. It wasn’t fair Mama should be unhappy, when life was so sweet.

Mama said no to vegetable soup prepared with emerald peas and pearls of rice adrift in steaming broth. Later, no, to slices of succulent free-range chicken roasted to tender perfection. Long after the sun set, when she rejected without comment freshly baked apple tart slathered with whipped cream, threatening to lock her bedroom door, if Susie didn’t leave her alone, SueAnne began to worry in earnest.

She sought comfort at the open hearth, but after three unsuccessful attempts to coax a flame from a heap of torn turf, her temper flared, even if the fire did not. She squatted, blowing irritably at a squall of smoke, elbows on knees, chin in hands, when unaccountably a stringy wad of turf blazed up. Hitching the cabin chair close, struggling to rein in thoughts scurrying to Micheál’s appealing figure, she guiltily checked the time. He was in Larne, by now, waiting for the ferry to Scotland. Tomorrow, Glasgow for a Celtic festival. Edinburgh, Wales, Liverpool. London. Three weeks. If I can put my finger on the fracture, and set it right, I might make London.

She woke early, dressed hurriedly, tiptoeing into the kitchen. Raking yesterday’s coals in the cooker, she stuffed turf in the fire box adjusting the air vent. Creeping outside she snipped a prickly bouquet from the sweetly scented Celeste sheltering behind the forge. Rose petals dripped dew on the breakfast table before the sun tipped Cashel mountain. Fruit compote simmered on the cooker. Miniature scones dotted a baking sheet. She held off grinding coffee, but a kettle need only be pulled to the fore to bring it to boil.

The wait began. She fiddled with the fire, paced back and forth between the kitchen window overlooking the allée and the arches facing the bay, craning to see the progress of clouds gathering in the south. One minute they were dispersing; the next growing darker, dense, heavy with rain. What she needed was a dry day. No showers, please. For the umpteenth time she looked at her watch. Unless Mama pinned the curtains together last night, the morning sun should be leaking in. A stab of panic poised SueAnne on the point of entering Mama’s room against her express wishes, when a familiar pad stayed her. She pulled the kettle forward, and slid the baking sheet into the oven.

“Hi, Mama!” SueAnne’s kiss missed as Mama brushed by.

“The kettle’s spluttering all over the stove, Susie. Are you making coffee?” Mama plopped at the end of the table, rearranging the roses. Her hair, on most mornings unkempt before coffee, was styled in the fashion SueAnne unkindly referred to as an old woman’s hairdo, miserly rolls capping her scalp. Her face was powdered; Ravishing Red were her lips.

Nervous, SueAnne splashed boiling water over the side of the coffee press splattering her hand, heroically stifled a curse and began to dish up the compote.

“You know I don’t like prunes.”

“They’re not prunes, Mama. I cooked the green apples we bought at Sullivan’s in a little red wine with crushed cardamom seed. Mrs. Sullivan gave me the recipe. She said her mama concocted it when they owned the guest house. Hikers came from all over England in those days to climb the Bens.” SueAnne’s cheerful history of the apple compote was interrupted by the timer’s frog-like croak. “Coffee! Scones will be ready in a minute.”

Mama shoved the compote aside. “We’re not in San Francisco, Susie. You don’t have to douse everything with wine like they do at La Trianon. I don’t remember buying wine.”

“I borrowed one of Ronnie’s bottles from the cabinet.”

“Borrowed?”

“It wasn’t an expensive bottle, Mama. I’ll replace it, when we go to Galway.”

“When did you start calling Lord Montblanc Ronnie? Does he know you call him Ronnie?”

SueAnne considered the situation, certain Mama couldn’t keep whatever it was to herself much longer. She prepared for the explosion. No matter what Mama says, I will be agreeable. If I so much as blanch, I’ll never get to London. She hung the tea towel on a hook, absentmindedly straightening the folds, ran her hand over the sleek band of hair confined in a knot on the top of her head. On red alert, followed Mama outside. Sitting on the terrace steps looking appealing at Mama on the Lutyens bench, she hoped for a repeat of times past, when as a small child the dear soul had granted her every wish.

“Susie, what is an orange man?”

“Orangemen?” She considered the question. “Are you talking about the Protestants in the North?”

“I don’t know what I’m talking about, Susie. Father Dan said I should tell you Mary Molly will be here before the orange men march.”

“I think there is a book on the Orange Order in the library. I’ll run in and get it.”

“Sit down, Susie. I didn’t ask for a history lesson. All I want to know is what an orange man is.”

“It’s complex, Mama.”

“If you don’t know what an orange man is, just say so, and I’ll ask Aileen. She knows everything.”

“In the North – .”

“Donegal?”

“No, Mama, not Donegal. East of Donegal, at the top of the island, Ireland, I mean, there are six counties still under English rule.” SueAnne sought neutral language. “On July 12, the Protestants have a holiday where they march to show their loyalty to the Queen. They call themselves Orangemen after an English king, William of Orange. It’s kind of like the 4th of July.”

“Why would Father Dan tell me about a Protestant march, when he’s a Catholic priest? Why should he care what they do?”

SueAnne rubbed fragrant stems of creeping thyme. “I can’t tell you, Mama. Father Dan is obsessed with history. You know that.” Why hadn’t Father Dan talked to her? If this had anything to do with his outlandish ideas about couriers, he shouldn’t have bothered Mama. Mama wasn’t interested. I might be interested, if Micheál is interested. Absurd. Micheál isn’t interested. He thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.

Mama’s tone changed from querulous to resolute. “I am going to write Johnny, ask him to come get us.” Father Dan’s call pushed Mama over the edge she teetered on for three months.

“You’re right, Mama. We should have written weeks ago. Poor Johnny.” Relief nipping in.

And, then, Joseph. “Why ye two be sitting out here, Mammy?”

“What? You startled me, Joseph. You shouldn’t sneak up like that. It’s not polite. We don’t have time to fix you tea. Go away. We are busy.”

Soaking in the sun didn’t strike Joseph as being busy. “What ye be doing?”

“It’s none of your business what we’re doing, Joseph. I tell you, we are busy. Susie has no time to fix you tea.”

“That’s all right, Mammy. We be taking the ponies to the show this morning. It starts at half-two. You come, SueAnne. Bring Mammy.”

“Where is the show, Joseph?” SueAnne found this bit of information interesting. Possibly, helpful.

“It’s at Claddaghduff, SueAnne. Where else would it be?” Joseph worried sometimes about SueAnne’s thought processes. “I go now. Pádraig be waiting for me.”

Joseph disappeared behind the hedge, SueAnne clucked Mama to the desk placing a pen in her hand. “Hurry, or we’ll miss the post.”

SueAnne directed respectful attention to Mama’s letter. “I think that does it. I’ll just say hi.” She scribbled a line at the bottom of the page before stuffing it in the envelope.

“Not too soon, Johnny. Give me a couple of months.  S.”

The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin, Part III, Celtic Idyll, continued on Pages, Sunday, April 15, 2012

No responses yet

Leave a Reply