12. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin”, (7)

 

 

PART III

CELTIC IDYLL continued

 

 

“Now that’s done, let’s go see the ponies. We’ll drive out the peninsula. If we don’t like it, we’ll leave.”

The route mimicked the curves of the Atlantic as far as a scraggle of cottages on a spur jutting off the mainland. Crawling past vehicles jamming the road, SueAnne took a chance on a narrow space between two trailers, back to back, gates down, wet glops under foot. They picked their way through the dung to an area looped with loose circles of onlookers. Open-shirted men trotted barrel-chested Conamara ponies around an impromptu show ring carved out of a cropped pasture. SueAnne tugged Mama’s sleeve, pointing to Joseph across the way.

“Don’t do that. He’ll see you, and drag us over to meet Pádraig. Is there any place to sit?”

“Couldn’t help overhearing. Try this.” A gray-haired man unfolded a striped canvas chair, placing it by Mama’s side. “A bit of comfort in the paddock. I’m Charles Carroll.”

“Of Carrollton?”

“This Carrollton fellow signed your Declaration of Independence, did he? I received a letter a few years back from someone in Virginia, I believe it was, asking if we were related. Never followed it up. Are you from the South?”

“We’re Westerners. I’m SueAnne Larkin. My mother, Clara Hutcheson.”

“How nice to meet you, Mrs. Hutcheson. I’ve heard a great deal about you. You are causing quite a stir in Conamara. Does the little chair suit you? There, that muscular roan belongs to your neighbor Pádraig Joyce. Isn’t Joseph having himself a time showing her off? He comes to you for tea, they tell me. Beware of the Irish bachelor, Mrs. Hutcheson. They are an undependable lot.” He motioned to a young man. “Adrian, you know the ponies. I’ll leave it to you to sort things out for Mrs. Hutcheson. Send Cahal for lemonade and cakes. I’ll attend to Miss Larkin myself. We won’t be long, Mrs. Hutcheson. I want to show off your daughter to those punters across the ring. Don’t worry, you are in good hands.”

Several men in waxed jackets and green wellies lounging a bit apart observed with amusement their progress across the muddy circle. “The Trinity Court.” Charles motioned to the group. “May I present Miss SueAnne Larkin. She is on holidays from the Wild West.”

“Welcome to Conamara, Miss Larkin. How do our poor ponies stack up against your stallions? A little runty, I would say. They are not bad for the hillsides. I wager they would leave your Quarter horses wallowing in the tide on Mannon beach. You might wire to have a pair sent over. We’d have a go at it.”

“Don’t give him the time of day, Miss Larkin. James Fahey has all he can do to cajole his bony mare out of the starting gate. It would be a great day when a horse of his beat out one of those sad donkeys you see nibbling grass at the side of the road.”

“The stud was famous where you are now, Miss Larkin. Ronnie’s grandfather kept Raftery. Bred him to the finest mares. Raftery’s blood runs in ponies from Australia to Canada. The war changed that. Your neighbor Pádraig Joyce takes the cup these days.”

“Bring Miss Larkin to us after the show.” Neil McEvilly’s horse farm splayed down the rocks caught up short by the Claddaghduff cottages. “My Sarah is laying the table. After a whiskey or two, we’ll seize the chance to lure her away from the sea.” He bowed to SueAnne. “We would be honored to have yourself and Mrs. Hutcheson join us. Sarah has been wanting to meet you. Excuse me, the noble judge beckons.”

“Is it over? Who won?” Mama’s surprise exasperated Adrian.

“Haven’t I just been telling you Pádraig’s ponies always win? You didn’t listen to me atall.”

“I was listening, Adrian, but I expected an announcement. Things start and stop around here. You don’t even know it.”

Adrian shrugged. “When we get here, it starts. When it’s over, we leave.”

“Adrian, you’re a brick. Thank you very much.” Charles tucked the canvas chair under an arm, waving Mama in the general direction of Claddaghduff. “We have a pleasant time ahead of us. We’re off for Neil and Sarah McEvilly’s. Wonderful family. Our parents sent Sarah and me to study with Léger. A hard walk, Mrs. Hutcheson, but brief. We’ll drive my car. No sense in tiring ourselves out.”

The night prior to the Claddaghduff pony show, Charles spent a pleasurable evening sipping brandy with the First Primate of All Ireland, discussing possible colors for a stained glass of St. Columbkille. On his departure from the ecclesiastical palace, he happened on Father Dan wending his way to a less convivial counsel on priestly discretion.

“Behind on the Volvo payments, Charles? I hear Columbkille may be counted on to mark paid to that little problem. It’s a wonder what saints will do for their own.” Father Dan accepted Charles’s talents, but distrusted his bookkeeping.

Charles ignored the gibe. “I’m on my way to Ard. A monkish retreat, you might say. Any interesting errands for me while I’m there?” He lingered hopefully.

Lamenting the necessity of discussing his couriers with the man he considered the Church bon vivant, Father Dan cleared his throat. Ahm m m. “If you stop by Ronnie’s, give my best to the two American ladies currently in residence. They’re serving the peasants tea while the laird and his lady are in Australia for the wedding.”

“I’m told it will be quite a do. Planning on popping by Sydney myself. Just for the day, of course. A quick glass of Ronnie’s champagne, then, off to the outback. The felons want a cathedral. Hard to imagine, but it was bound to happen after the Crown flooded the down-under with Catholic miscreants. I can picture Ronnie’s face going gloomy. Yet another blow to the Empire. Who are the women? High Church?”

“It’s hard to say; they may have escaped all the lessons. Itinerants. A bit dotty. You run across the type more than I, I dare say, Charles. We might spend an illuminating few hours discussing the idiosyncrasies of untended women, but the Archbishop has need of me. I suppose you drank all the brandy.” Father Dan lightly sniffed the air. “Pace, Friar.” He moved heavily, a weary pilgrim traversing the marble hall he secretly alluded to as the Avenue of Sighs.

Charles Carroll adored the tumultuous passions of restless women. He collected his share over the years, delighting himself, dismaying his wife and, later, enraging his adult children. He earned a handsome living, satisfying his earthly needs and those of his family, from an embarrassment of talent. Serving the Archbishop, his status as the Irish Michelangelo cast a cloak of cheery self-confidence across his cherubic face, fluidly draping his ever so slightly rotund figure.

Snaring SueAnne and Mrs. Hutcheson immediately on his arrival was a bit of luck. Charles recognized them, of course. Not hard to do. Few wealthy blow-ins hit Claddaghduff. An odd thing, it wasn’t in Father Dan’s nature to be cute, pretending the beauty and her mother were a dull sort. Keeping them out of harms way? No bother, he had them now. The punters laid odds on the fiddler, but where was he? No where in sight. He laid down his marker in the brief minutes available before the McEvilly crowd swarmed the table.

“Do you ride, SueAnne? The best fox hunt in Ireland, the Galway Hunters, are not far down the road. Wrong time of year, worse luck, the red coats are at the back of the press, but I can show you a couple of rides, breathtaking, purple heather running amok, dunes of silky sand. I’ll venture you’ve never seen the like of it. Get you used to the English saddle. Might even try a few jumps. Sail over the hedges this fall. The music of the horn. The baying of the pack.”

“I loathe hunting.”

“What about the cowboys and the wide open spaces, SueAnne? Buffalo hunts and all that.”

“Killing innocent creatures is not my idea of sport.”

“Mmmm, yes, animal rights, I think they call it. We’ve a few of your sympathizers around here. Decent people. I’ll introduce you to Major Logan. You’ll get along famously. He spent his youth in India cataloguing the disappearance of tigers and elephants. You’ll read his stuff in the Times, angry discourses on man’s cruelty to animals in general, and the bushy tailed red fox in particular. But, we are very good to our horses, SueAnne. You’ll find no complaint there. Speak to Adrian. He will vouch for it. We’ll ask Neil to pick a couple of ponies for us, have them saddled at dawn tomorrow, the best time, lovely sunrise. It’s not quite five. We’ll nip down to Stanley’s after we deposit Mrs. Hutcheson with the McEvillys, pick up a pair of riding boots for you.” Charles looked her over. “You’re about Sarah’s size. Harry keeps jodhpurs on hand for her. We’ll snatch a pair. Do you have a Barbour? We’ll purloin one of those as well. Have to keep up the side. A waxed jacket will do the trick. You won’t mind if I bring a sketch pad?”

Home late, a faint chirring down the allée roused SueAnne to a run.

“Where have you been? I’ve spent the day ringing when I should be sleeping. My ear is falling off. ”

“The best news. Mama has a new friend. If nothing goes wrong, I’ll be in London in three weeks. We went to Claddaghduff.”

“Stop. I’m on. I’ll ring you at two.”

“In the morning?”

“I’m working, ÁineSlán.”

“Who was that?” Mama sank into a chair. “I would like a cup of tea, please.”

“Yes, Mama.”

 

“Were you asleep?

“It’s three-thirty.”

“Better wake up. I’m surrounded by beautiful women. It will take a mighty effort to break free. Do you love me?”

“Yes. You tell those women to get away, you’re taken.”

“Am I taken?”

“You’ll see when I get to London whether you are taken or not.”

“What were you doing in Claddaghduff, making up to that pony feeder.”

“We met the McEvillys. Mama is smitten with Sarah.”

“That Wicklow painter was there, wasn’t he? He’s married. Has five children, all crying for their Da.”

“How did you know Charles was at the show?”

“Father Dan. You should listen when I tell you there are no secrets in Ireland.”

SueAnne was laughing. “What about Beryl? Can we trust her?”

“You can trust Beryl. You can trust me, but the queue ends there. Don’t let that Dub tell you differently.”

“Three weeks. I’ll be there in three weeks.”

 

At sunrise, Charles’s soothing soliloquy paced SueAnne’s lumbering cantor over the dunes of Mannon Bay. “You were very good.” Charles pulled cheese and apples from a jacket pocket, from the depths of another, a bottle of red wine. “No crystal. Paper cups must do.”

“Tell me about Léger.”

“We still did the world tour when I read at Trinity. Parents would be drawn and quartered today for suggesting it. I have a daughter who is sailing around the world with my best friend. I think they’re somewhere around Tahiti. Very hard to accept. I studied with Léger for a year after the war. Picked up enough to sup at the Archbishop’s table. I’m a poor imitation of what Léger was. The wits say he wasn’t much. I disagree there. It is his proletarian philosophy they can’t abide. Not that I’m pro-poor, but still generosity isn’t a vile trait. Sarah was there. Gave me short shrift. What about you?”

“Nomadic. I envy you making a living painting. You are better than you say, I suspect. I was at an academy in California for a while. Motherwell showed his Spanish Republic series.” SueAnne held out the paper cup. “You look a little like him, could be a brother.”

“Are you suggesting plump?”

“Falstaffian, I’d say. Anyway, I’ve never recovered. Spectacular stuff. Reminds me of Auden’s poems before he found God.”

“You disapprove?”

“Unnecessary, isn’t it, this search for the unknowable?”

“Ireland has a noble tradition of religious dissent, SueAnne. Catholics here are formed by Celtic myth as much as St. Patrick. Makes for a tolerant crowd. There isn’t an Irishman worth his rosary who wouldn’t rather rant with a dissenter than jaw with a believer.”

“Tell that to the Protestants up North.”

“I’ll grant you some of the lads need reining in. That reminds me, as I was leaving Armagh the other evening I had the good fortune to chat with Father Dan. He alerted me to your residence at Ronnie’s. You come with quite a pedigree.”

“Everyone says Ireland is a small island. I’d hate to try to get away with anything.”

“It is remarkable in its way. We believe we know everything, yet there are subterranean currents, dark, sinister. Like the sea. Did someone tell me you’re a sailor?”

“No more a sailor than a rider, but I’m up for learning.”

“I will teach you to ride. Who will teach you to sail? Would it be Micheál Ó Flaharta from Ard?”

“The Máire Rua is a lovely boat. Running my hand along her tumblehome is the equivalent of caressing a relic for you Christians.”

“You might want to be careful there, SueAnne.” Charles leaned over, and lightly brushed a glisten of sand off the sleeve of her jacket. “There is more to Ireland than a handful of Irish speakers. They’re a dodgy bunch. Unrevealing. Clannish. Charming, I grant you, but unforgiving. Loyal to their own. Cavalier with strangers. They keep secrets from the rest of us poor Paddys.”

“Are they so bad?”

“Treacherous like giant boulders lying below the water’s surface, breaking when you least expect it, capable of great damage, if not successfully navigated. There are good reasons why only a scattering of native speakers survive. Theirs is a culture of the past. For them foreign influences aren’t a source of enrichment, they are the commencement of decay. The outside world is destroying them.”

SueAnne bit into an apple. “I’m in love with Micheál. There is no going back.”

“Ah, that’s the story. The world shifts. Do not rule out too soon an old sophisticate.”

“You have three weeks to make your case. Then, I’m off for a London tryst.”

 

Holding his ground at the rope cordoning off Heathrow’s gate 93, Micheál caught SueAnne darting from the tunnel touching arms, flashing smiles over her shoulder.

“Oh, I’m sorry, oh sorry, sorry.”

“You’re here.”

“I’m here.”

SueAnne spoke rapidly, Micheál in a rush of short, melodic cadences, interrupting each other, breathless.

“Where’s Mamo?”

“She’s with Sarah who adores her. We’ve been going to – ”

“How long do we have?”

“Sarah wants Mama to stay forever, but Mama – ”

“Over here.” The battered Mercedes idled in a line of stretch limousines at the arrivals entrance. “You’re a grand lad, Tommy.”

A boy in chauffeur’s livery opened Micheál’s door. “A bit of comfort for the Fiddler.” He touched his cap, broad Dublin face emotionless, bolted to the passenger side, closing SueAnne’s door with a jaunty, “God speed.”

“Are we going to Shepherd’s Court? Aileen says –”

“Shepherds Court is fine for the likes of Aileen.”

“Where are we going? You said you stayed with friends.”

“South Kensington.” Micheál rocketed down M-1 entering the city traffic at a speed which occasioned admiration from seasoned London drivers. Her rapture strayed to Micheál’s hands, angular, sinewy, guiding them through the maze. Loneliness and longing claimed her. She turned, shattered. Love, fragile, illusionary. Yeats’s warning: “Empty your heart of its mortal dreams.”

“How do you like it?” A block of tall Georgian row houses, clipped box hedges, scrubbed stone stairs, modestly signed in brass Roman numerals. XVI. “It’s a find. No one knows about it but a select few. Like ourselves. A Stormont minister captured me in Edinburgh forcing pints down my throat, scourging the Brits, on to me about how he was working from the inside. They’re cute, those Prods, but fair play to him, he pulled the levers, and here we are.”

The manager discretely directed SueAnne to the enclosed garden, the mirrored bath, the bell pull. “No. No, Mr. Ó Flaharta, it is taken care of.” He diplomatically rejected Micheál’s extended hand. “I hope you will find it to your liking Mrs. Ó Flaharta.”

“Mrs. Ó Flaharta. What a liar you are, Mr. Ó Flaharta.”

Lounging in the garden, street vibrations scaled angular walls collapsing, spent, over crimson rhododendrons. Micheál massaged SueAnne’s feet.

“I love you, Micheál. Don’t leave me.”

“What are you talking about? Wasn’t it you who said I was a taken man? It’s marriage I’m after. You don’t like it. It’s not normal. Women marry. Being a spinster is okay for nuns or schoolteachers. They’re different. It’s not for you. You need me.”

“Being taken is not being married. I can’t fathom this Irish obsession with marriage. Married women have no courage. They may say what they think, but when it comes time to act, they follow their husbands. I know too many good women who traded conviction for a big house.”

“Not many would call Mick’s cabin a big house.”

SueAnne, in love, stood on the cold stone, defiance fading. She pulled Micheál from his chair. “Do we have time?”

“The fiddle will wait.”

Muldoon’s was a tangle of nooks gamboling off a plank floor littered with tables. Uneven stairs jutting out of the back half of the room led to a circular balcony. Latecomers, pints of Guinness to hand, pounded up the steps in hope of an empty chair; early arrivals lurched between tables shouting to friends. SueAnne was astounded to find the pub a crush of English speakers. English spoken with lilting upending phrases, inverted sentences, expressions straight out of Dickens, an Irish dialect to be sure, but no Irish speakers that she could detect. Why she expected to hear Irish at a pub in the middle of London she couldn’t say. Discomfited, she recalled Charles’s words, “There is more to Ireland than a handful of Irish speakers, SueAnne.”

A sweet-faced girl anchored a Celtic band fresh off the boat from Brittany. She sang a sorrowful ballad, its plaintiveness lost in the low rumble of the crowd. Shyly, she took her bows and knelt, sitting back on her heels as a child might, on the edge of the raised platform. Micheál pushed through the mob, fiddle case under his arm. Wearing tight levi’s and a black sweater, sleeves pushed up, a mass of tight curls bobbing above the crowd, he looked as he did the first time SueAnne saw him. Except he was clean. Shouts became a roar as the crowd recognized him. The Brittany trio burst into “The Prodigal Son.”

“It’s the Fiddler!”

Áine, can you think about sleeping?”

“You didn’t tell me you were a celebrity. Mindless adoration. It makes me sick.”

“I fiddle at pubs for homesick Paddys. Good craic to forget they left all they knew, and all they wanted, to put a few shillings in their pocket. Don’t begrudge them their sup of happiness. They’ll need more than a pint and a fiddler to give them comfort in the wee hours.” He rolled over. “Áine, how is it you left Montana?”

“I set fire to an old building.”

He started. He couldn’t have been more surprised if Father Dan confessed to being a mole for the Royal Irish Constabulary. “You’re joking.”

She leaned close. “What kind of woman have you gotten yourself embroiled with, Mr. Ó Flaharta? Having second thoughts?”

“Why would you do that? Whose building was it, anyway?”

“It was mine, damn it.”

“I’m only asking, Áine. It’s yours to answer or not.” For the life of him, he couldn’t make out how she could change so fast. He began whistling “Carraig Dun,” feeling himself one of Ireland’s wounded Wild Geese.

“I was with Percy a long time. We never married. You know how I feel about that. He was a photographer, everyone in the States knows his work. When he died, the family wanted everything. The judge gave them his workshop. I burned it down.”

“How did you do that?” He couldn’t image her setting fire to anything. She couldn’t get a pyramid of turf to burn.

“I, ah, it’s kind of a long story.”

“No hurry.”

Uncertain of his reaction, she adopted a careless air. “It was out in the country. No houses for miles. Sagebrush and rattlesnakes. Cattle. That’s about it.” She stopped, collecting her thoughts.

“So.”

“It was winter. Snow and ice. No possible harm to anything. I poured gasoline on the floor, lit a match, that was it. Mama and I drove to Butte, flew into Dublin.”

“Was there anything in the building?”

“No, it was empty.”

“Was it daytime?”

“It was early morning. We wanted to catch the plane to Salt Lake.”

“How early?”

“About four.”

“How far is Butte.”

“I don’t know. Maybe an hour.” She became vague.

“How cold was it?”

“Montana gets really cold. It’s like the Arctic. Winds scream down from Canada. It’s numbing. Ireland is balmy, green, soft, where Montana is hard and gray.”

He wouldn’t be put off. “How cold?”

“Below zero.”

“Am I right now? You and Mamo poured gasoline over an old building, put it afire and flew to Dublin?”

“That’s it.”

“Does anyone know you’re here?”

“Mama sent my brother Johnny a letter so he wouldn’t worry. He’s in San Francisco. He’s wonderful, Micheál. You will be the best of friends. Johnny is steady. He and Mama are alike. I’m more like my Daddy, as Mama always says, you’re just like your Father.”

Micheál lay unspeaking, angry flames of ancient memories burning his mind, wrongs never righted. He saw cold, rocky land, a rude village, desolation, despair. Sir Gregory Bingham’s bailiff pulling up his sleek horse in front of old Mick’s cabin reading out the eviction notice. Sergeant Mahon’s men from the local Constabulary, carbines slung over their shoulders. Emergency men driving the battering ram through a wall. A shout. An ecstatic dancer rips a torch from a gloved hand, hurls herself on shocks of straw, red petticoats flaming, long hair whipping sparks. Áine.

“Wouldn’t it be funny altogether if we were cousins.”

He had one last question. “Have you friends in Boston, Áine?”

Confident gaiety gave the answer. “Sure, doesn’t everyone have friends in Boston?”

SueAnne caught a midmorning flight from Heathrow to Dublin. An unopened London Times lay on her knees, mind clutching Micheál, fiddle in hand, waiting to scramble for his own flight to Brittany. Another three weeks. “It’s new sails for the Máire Rua. She’ll take the cup this year.” Pleased, he was surprised by the tears. “You’ll be entertaining the Conamara punters, sure, you’ll have no time to miss me at all.”

Unfolding the paper, she toiled her way methodically past the ugliness, and then the silliness of the world, when a headline in the entertainment section stopped her cold.

“Mean Fiddler Scorches Muldoon Rafters.”

The Times! Delight battled dismay.

“Micheál Ó Flaharta stopped long enough in Shepherd’s Court this week to take his revenge for Cromwell’s 17th century march through Connaught. Forced to their knees, English fiddlers chanted the Anglo-Norman supplication of old, ‘From the fury of the O’Flaherties, good Lord deliver us.’ Strutting the London boards to the wanton strains of ‘The Prodigal Son,’ Ó Flaharta brandished Celtic rhythms with the sure grasp of a Fenian pikeman.”

An overwrought intern SueAnne concluded, leaning her forehead against the cool cabin glass, wind lashing the Irish Sea.

It was not Mama, but the rumpled figure of the Dublin painter at rest on the Lutyens bench who greeted her on arrival at the Montblanc terrace. “You’re a smidgen early. Drive too fast, I think. You should be careful on these roads, SueAnne. Yanks are not used to Irish driving. It’s bad enough you pull to the right to avoid a crash, but you have yet to absorb the principle of driving in the middle of the road, swerving the instant before impact. It makes perfect sense, you know. Here, I’ll take that bag. We avoid pot holes, wandering sheep, cyclists. Easy on the insurance. Your mother and Sarah instructed me to advise you there is a dinner party this evening. You are to change. I’m to bring you up immediately. No dallying. Here. A whiskey – Ronnie frowns on ice diluting his Scotch – to perk you up.”

SueAnne acceding to Charles’s commands, resigned to Sarah’s soiree, yawned on the front seat of Charles’s Volvo.

“Ah! Heady nights in the City. How’s the fiddler? Does the poor man have any idea what he has hold of? No, I think not. Love has many meanings. Lust is one. I am all for passion. Don’t misunderstand me, but there must be something underneath. No, no, that’s not a witticism. There’ll come a time when waking in Mick’s cabin, the acrid smell of turf, musty tea, roaring, desolate sea, will stifle you. Where is the intellectual rigor, flash of color, grande jeté of the imagination, Nijinsky’s leap – stay awhile, he said, why come down? You admitted yourself you are a gypsy. Not Micheál. He is a nester. Lives in the past.

“I grant you Ard is balm to the senses, if you are a stranger. You do what you want, no remarks passed. If you are one of the clan, the rules are strict, unwritten, unspoken. You’ll be censured, and not be aware of it. Micheál will know, and chafe under the ban. You’re venturing into dangerous territory, a clash of cultures. I hate to sound a begrudger, but no good can come of it.”

“You have five children. Where are they? Where’s your wife?”

“If you ask her, she will tell you she is happy in Wicklow. She does not need balm for the senses. You and I, my dear SueAnne, may need an extra application of that ointment before the evening is out.”

Charles devoted the next weeks to an all out assault on SueAnne’s perilous affair with Micheál Ó Flaharta, sunrise rides, painting sessions, country house dining. Ideas running thin, he proposed a home visit.

“Mrs. Hutcheson, my Conamara cabin has yet to be graced by your presence. It is at its best on a day such as this, warm, untroubled skies. There is a stone seat for you by the front door. I’ll give Des a shout, have him pack us a lunch.”

At Ard pier Charles was exultant. “Here we are, this is our transfer point. Off to Finland Station. We are not limited to the road’s rocky end, we have watery paths to journey.” He scooped up the picnic basket, and clambered into a bulky boat of uncertain design. “The Nadia. She is named after my daughter.” He glanced significantly at SueAnne. “The one who is cruising somewhere around Tahiti.”

“We’re going in that?” Mama couldn’t believe her eyes.

“It is a heavy blow you’ve dealt me, Mrs. Hutcheson. The Nadia is a one off. Purpose-built. She is the equivalent of a DaVinci painting. There is none like her. She is my finest effort. You recognize, SueAnne, the sensuous tumblehome, the shallow keel, lines of a Hooker. That mast is hollow steel. No need for an armada of badóirí. I am captain, first mate and crew.” He tugged the limp tanbark sail. “It’s not far, Mrs. Hutcheson. To your left. The sandy beach. That’s Casey.”

Later in the evening, drinking Scotch on the terrace, Charles and SueAnne chatted, agreeable as old lovers.

“When’s the fiddler coming home?”

“Soon. A few days. Less than a week.”

“He’s a bold man to let you out of his sight. You’re lovely, SueAnne.”

“Lovely. I don’t know about that, but I am doggedly faithful.”

“Is our fiddler doggedly faithful?”

“For the moment, Charles, and with luck for a little longer.”

“Will you marry him?”

“Marriage! It is an Irish epidemic. Ritual and sacrament, sin and salvation. My Daddy always said, the priests get you at an early age, and they never let you go.”

“You seem to have gotten away.”

“I was never caught. My Daddy saw to that.”

“There’s heavy work for Father Dan.” Charles sank into contemplation. “I leave paradise Thursday. Sorry to miss the welcome for the fiddler, but Columbkille calls. What is the date, SueAnne? June 21st. Summer Solstice. The Druids celebrated it as Alban Heruin, Light of the Earth, the Oak King giving way to the darker Holly King at the moment of waning. Tomorrow plus one is Bonfire Night, Ireland’s tribute to Áine, Celtic goddess of love. What do you say, SueAnne, to a night of madness? Riding horses naked into the sea. Rings of fire keeping Coalte and Niamh at bay. Sheep roasting, poteen in oaken casks. Hard drinking and wanton love making.” He paused to check her reaction. “We’ll do it. Cut every bloom in Lady Montblanc’s garden. Confiscate all the candles in Conamara. If it comes down to it, purloin candles from Father Tom’s sacristy. Leave the rest to me. At half-six Bonfire Night, the Nadia sails to the dim shore.”

“I don’t think Mama will go on the Nadia again.”

“I’m counting on it, SueAnne.”

For two days, Mama remained resistant. “It is bad enough sailing on that boat in the daytime. Only a fool would do it at night. Sarah isn’t going, is she?”

“I think it will be mostly Irish speakers. Jimmie Fada and Emir and their friends.”

“Are you taking all those flowers to the island?”

“It’s Bonfire Night, Mama. There will be flowers. Candles. Music. Everyone sings or plays the Irish pipes or fiddle or something. It will be so much fun. I sure wish you’d come.”

“I’m not going on that boat with a bunch of drunks.”

“No one is going to drink much, Mama. Everyone has to sail home. You can’t do that if you’re drunk.”

The Nadia was no where in sight, when SueAnne arrived at Ard pier. She searched in the back seat for binoculars to check if Charles was still anchored at Casey, when she heard a childish voice. “SueAnne. I know you’re SueAnne because we sat in Father Dan’s car, when I hurt my toe.” Little Jimmie pointed to a curragh. “Father is going to row you to Casey Island. He’s gone off to get Mother. I can’t go. Father says to wait here.” It was eight and then some when Jimmie Fada dipped an oar in the water.

“We’ve left you smelling the sea breeze too long, SueAnne. It’s a trouble collecting the brood, but I don’t like to go until I know they’re well fed.” Emir shifted on the seat. “I haven’t been to Casey since I was married. The old families came in with the resettlement. Charles bought the McDonough cabin. Jimmie goes out with him, when he comes down from Dublin. I don’t see him for days.”

“It will be good craic tonight, SueAnne. Máirtín ran out a trawler of poteen before sun up.” Jimmie Fada nosed in along side three curraghs and Nadia’s raft, the ungainly craft bobbing on anchor a few yards out. He sniffed the air. “I tell you it was some job getting Éamon’s spit out here, but here it is. Hullo!” He disappeared around a hillock.

A wobbly circle of jugs jigging with brass candle holders waited expectantly at the cabin door. Emir ratcheted the pump handle, filling vases, SueAnne separated flower stems. “You’re very good at that, SueAnne. The colors are gorgeous. They say you’re a painter. Is that how you met Charles? He did a picture of Nan’s Donall walking on water. Ah, sure, Nan will tell you. What would you have me do with all these candles? The roof will go if we’re not careful.”

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” SueAnne lighted the last taper.

“Oh, it’s nice!”

Outside, two trawlers anchored next to the Nadia, and five more curraghs had run in. “Listen. He’s at it already. Máirtín can’t get a sound out of his mouth but it’s his ‘Matilda.’ He’d drive you mad. There’s the pit. Isn’t it grand? Someone will be calling their sheep in the morning. No. No poteen, Seán. Is there a Guinness anywhere? Over here, SueAnne.”

Charles appeared like a sidhe out of the smoke. “It is a Monet, SueAnne, Gloire de Dijon weeping over the terra cotta jug. Apricot hues. Bewitching. What do you think?” He pointed at restless fires reaching lasciviously toward the sun. The smell of seared flesh rose from the pit carried on scabbards of smoke. “Here, Emir, the first slice. Too rare? Our Yank will take it. Another few minutes should do the trick. Put away that Guinness. This is not a night for the timid. Where is the poteen?”

The old day clinging to shreds of light lost hold, fell, prostrate at the feet of the mauve dawn, dark shadows luminous, night conquered. SueAnne lay weeping at Emir’s feet, as she sang of the “Poor Orphan Child.” On the other side of the island, Máirtín’s “Matilda” was borne away by the tide. Jimmie Fada strolled by. “The Darbys have the best of it. The Joyces are beat.” He thumbed a curragh’s wavering course toward the mainland. “Doc Freeman will have his work stitching that crowd.” He wandered on.

Seán handed SueAnne a fish gutting knife, blade dripping bloody flesh. “It’s the best, SueAnne. The best. Here.” He pushed a cracked cup into her hand. “You have no poteen. I’ve not seen the likes of it. Charles is wanting. Where the hell is he at all?” He cocked an ear. “Listen. Emir. Be quiet, will you?” Unmistakable sounds issued from behind the hedge. “Father Tom will be christening in March. In the old days the poor priest got no rest, christening and marrying, christening and marrying. The Protestants changed all that with their damned pills.”

Pinned in a trough between two moundy stones, SueAnne’s arms prickled as blood flowed around the cracked cup. She wriggled and wailed. Emir, atop one of the humped stones, smoked a cigarette, shouting encouragement to four rubbery men wrestling a curragh into the tide. Angry voices crescendoed, died away. A ghostly spectre poured poteen, splashing the sides of SueAnne’s cup. Without looking, she thrust the jar away.

“Don’t you have any Paddy?”

Heaving herself to her feet, she walked unsteadily toward the cabin, where a macabre silhouette bent low next a hearth, exhaling blue vapors. Probing clotting rills of liquor, spurning bruised apricot petals, she stumbled toward Charles, sagged on a chair, clutching a bottle to his breast.

She cleared her burning throat. “May I have a drink?”

Charles raised his head, casting a malevolent gaze in her direction, tightening his grip on the bottle. He heeled his chair in a widening gyre until his back was to her.

“Fuck off.”

Reeling, SueAnne hit the blackened mantelpiece. She raised both hands to her forehead, and pushed back wet hair. She ran her hands over her shirt. Dry. Something was amiss, but revolving the situation over in her mind, dully aware of waves and laugher, it evaded her. I’ll rest a moment. She sank onto the hearth seat. Her eyelids drooped shut. By degrees, she became aware of a bitter voice, shouting. She squinched at the disturbance.

Micheál stood in the doorway. “You are a disgrace.”

Picking his way across the floor, he pulled a limp body, whose presence had escaped SueAnne, out of a pool of poteen, snatching a jacket from a pile in the corner. “Festy, put this on. You’re as wet as a foal just hit the ground. Get up there.” Micheál pushed him toward the ladder.

Festy recoiled. “I cannot, Micheál. The fairies have taken hold. Look at them swaying like jelly in a bowl.”

“Get up it, I say. Get in the loft, and go to sleep. Stop plaguing me. I’m about to loose my temper.” Micheál lifted Festy by his belt, and gave him a toss.

“Stand up.” He turned his wrath on SueAnne.

She raised her head sulkily. “Why can’t you be nice? You are always telling me what to do.”

“So. Stop here. The painter is in grand shape to take care of you. I’ll tell Mamo you have left us for this fine gentleman. Slán.”

“Did you see Mama?”

Micheál stomped the blossoms strewn in his path. “The Joyce lads did great work here. Good craic.” He snatched a broken jug, sending it flying across the beach.

“Micheál!” Jimmie Fada’s stringy form popped above a sand dune. He beckoned with a grimy bottle. “A warm welcome to the darlin’ fiddler. Come have a jar.”

“Blast you, Jimmie Fada. I go away for a few days. Look at you.” He shoved a curragh into the water.

“Wait for me.” SueAnne skittered down the sandy incline.

“Go back to your painter. I’m through with you.”

She waded into the tide, flailing, lost her balance, pitched forward, grabbed frantically at the side of the curragh. “Don’t be mean. I want to go with you.”

“You’re with me now. So.”

“Are we going to Mick’s cabin?”

“It’s home you’re going. You’re not fit for decent company.”

“I thought you weren’t coming till Friday. That’s what you said.”

“Lucky for you I came when I did.”

“It’s Bonfire Night.”

“Its a scandal is what it is.”

“You love me,” SueAnne pleaded.

“It’s a pity if I do.”

 

“I’ve brought you your daughter, Mamo. A pretty sight she is.”

“It was a nice party, Mama. I’m sorry you missed it. I’ll just freshen up.” SueAnne swept grandly through the room throwing a queenly look to a man drinking tea. “Good morning, Joseph. Lovely day.”

Micheál rounded on the innocent. “Get out you pony feeder.”

Joseph, gathering his dignity, set down his cup. “I be going, Micheál. Mammy, you tell SueAnne I be wanting tea in the morning, after I feed the ponies.”

Micheál lunged for him. Joseph, quick on his feet, sidestepped the blow. At the arched door, he halted, gazing at Mama with his beautiful blue eyes. “SueAnne getting wild, Mammy. Maybe, she needs a man to keep her home.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Joseph. The trouble with Susie is she has too many men.” Mama glanced sideways at Micheál beating his forehead with the palm of his hand. “I suppose now you want tea. I might as well be slinging hash in Joplin.”

Micheál followed Mama to the kitchen. “Mary Molly comes home tomorrow. It’s a long journey from Boston. You know yourself there’s no decent food on a plane. You’ll have tea for her, maybe, and poached salmon and brown bread, a welcome for a woman who loves you as a sister.”

“She won’t want to come here, Micheál. She’s old like me. She’ll want to go home. Are you picking her up in Dublin? That’s a long drive. It takes Susie five hours, and she drives fast.” Mama reconsidered. “Not as fast as you,” she amended. “What time does the plane get in? They always land in the morning. You won’t get here till the middle of the afternoon. Why don’t you stay at the Shelbourne, come home the next day? She would be all rested up. You could come here for lunch, before you go to Ard.”

“Mary Molly doesn’t want to stop at the Shelbourne. She wants to come up to you for tea. Then, she wants to go home, and go to bed.”

“How do you know that? Is that what she said? She probably doesn’t want to impose on you, that’s all.”

Mamo, I guess I know what Mary Molly wants, and what she wants is to have tea here at Ronnie’s, and, then, go to sleep in her own bed at Ard.” Micheál rinsed his cup under the faucet. “Where does that Brit keep his whiskey?” He yanked open the liquor cabinet, filled the cup brimful with Scotch, and drained it in one noisy swallow. “I cannot stand here all day telling you what Mary Molly wants. Your daughter about killed me rowing that curragh to Casey in the early morning after flying back from France, and driving from Dublin in the middle of the night, and dragging her from an island of drunks, and rowing back to Ard, and bringing her up to you. It is not Mary Molly who needs to put her head on a pillow it is myself.”

Mama listened for steps to die away on the terrace. She heard the clank of the iron gate. Certain she was alone, and could think without interruption, she set to work planning the next twenty-four hours. If Micheál was mean enough to make his mother drive all the way to Conamara when she was dead tired, the least she could do was have a good meal for her. She rummaged in the refrigerator looking for salmon, and there wasn’t any. She checked the cupboards for coarse meal and treacle. A tablespoon of thick dark syrup thinly coated the bottom of the can. She couldn’t find coarse meal in any of the usual hiding places. The lettuce was wilted, and streaks of brown scarred a single lemon. We have to go shopping. I’d better wake Susie.

 

The sight of Father Dan’s car in Mary Molly’s drive ordained “Micheál’s ordeal not yet over.

“Micheál! I was beginning to worry. When I received Mary Molly’s call she led me to understand you would be home last night. I hurried down myself to be welcomed by a cold hearth. No harm. I purchased chops from Maureen. We’ll have a cup of tea. Exchange the news of the day though to be absolutely honest, Maureen filled me with more goings on than I was prepared to hear. You look drawn, my boy. Age, I fear, is beginning to tell. Don’t look so stricken. It comes to us all. The Lord plays no favorites.”

Micheál squatted, stirring the embers of the languishing fire, his wracked limbs flinching in the sudden flame. “Mary Molly arrives tomorrow. I collect her at the airport.”

“We need not concern ourselves with the circumstances of her arrival. There will be no problem in Dublin. Ronán has seen to that. Nora stopped for tea at the Shelbourne. Hanrahan assured her Stormont is, with vaunted English efficiency, single-mindedly tracking the Apprentice Boys. What a help those Protestant drummers are to us. We must remember to toast their health, in what I pray, is not the too distant future. I turn to you, Micheál, for assurance we have no trouble in Conamara. We are agreed, are we not, there must be no repeat of Banna Strand.”

“Casement! God Almighty, Father, that was sixty years ago. We’re not trying to land twenty thousand guns in Kerry. It’s a little old lady with a backpack we’re talking about.”

Ahm m m. “An old lady Mary Molly surely is, yet she, God speed her journey, is our Graínne Uhaile. Never forget, it was Graínne, the Queen of Conamara, who harried the invaders while the Ó Flaharta men languished in English gaols. I put it to you plainly. Are we to entrust the final thrust to the Yankee couriers?”

A breeze rushed the chimney. The kettle hissed on hot iron. Father Dan tamped tobacco into his briar, the click of his gold lighter threatening in the silence.

“I don’t know.”

“A good Catholic lad like yourself, Micheál, may have done better to chose Eve. Liliths are notoriously difficult.”

“What do you mean, Lilith?”

“A harridan some say. Jewish lore has it God created Lilith before Eve. Lilith balked. Wanted equal status, Micheál. Banished, or ran away. No burial in the churchyard for that lass. Eve was a more pliable substitute. A pity you missed that lesson.”

“That’s a pretty name for a courier. Harridan. Right up there with the Whore of Rome. Would it be from Stormont it came?”

“Micheál!”

“I’m sorry, Father. Sleep will clear the cobwebs. We’ll drink a pint at Mannion’s tonight. Sort things out.”

Father Dan scrutinized Micheál’s retreating figure, the sunlight rippling his black sweater like waves. The lad must decide. Will SueAnne weaken him? The priest catechized the good and the evil. No. He belongs to Ireland. Try they may, but neither Lilith nor Eve can breach that love.

Fitfully sleeping, rising before dawn, Father Dan found a note stuffed among the turves apologizing for missing the pint. Micheál was on his way to Dublin.

 

Nora’s presence at Dublin airport surprised Micheál.

“It will make it easier. Mary Molly is confident of the day. Unhappily, we do not share her certainties. Father Dan was at the call box at half-five this morning imploring me to come to Ard. I am not in operations, but I will be of what help I may.” Nora checked the corridor with satisfaction. “That one needs no band or banners. Shy and sure, your mother. Look. A girl would have no lighter step.” She grasped the old woman’s hand.

Two steps behind, a solemn youngster pushed Mary Molly’s trolley past the rope barrier.

“Good man, Peter.” Micheál reached for the cart handle.

“I’ve got it, Micheál. Ronán gave it to meself to stuff the bags in the boot.” Peter waited for the women’s welcome to subside, walking patiently beside Mary Molly to the car park. He lifted the battered suitcase, shoved it to the back, stowed a smaller beside it, and tossed a green backpack on top. The boot slammed shut. “Safe journey, Mary Molly. You’re a grand woman. Sure, you carry precious cargo, Micheál. Ronán says drive like a sane man.”

“Peter, tell Ronán if I drove like him, all the Guardí in Connaught would be chasin’ me.”

Mama, on watch glimpsed the black Mercedes through a breach in the hawthorne hedge. She smoothed the skirt of her red dress. “I must greet them.”

“We’ll go together, shall we?”

Father Dan had arrived in the midst of painstaking preparations for the homecoming. “Would there be a chair for me at the table? I’m famished. Micheál promised salmon and a dram of Ronnie’s best, if I joined the welcoming committee. You’ve laid out the silver, SueAnne. The table is splendid. I neglected to mention we are to be honored by Nora’s company, as well as our returning matriarch. I suggested Nora commandeer a seat in the sidecar. More crested silver. The Ascendancy will do us proud. A great celebration, Clara. I cannot tell you with what joy I anticipate the meeting between yourself and Mary Molly, two of the grand women of the world. And, Nora, of course. That goes without saying. I offer an amendment, three grand women. No, I didn’t forget you, SueAnne. You are too young to fit into the grand category.”

Giddy with relief at the sight of the Mercedes, SueAnne leaned against the archway, listening to the laughter of the three women as they approached, leaning into one another, holding hands. Father Dan spoke quietly with Micheál, standing aside, ignored, as the women absorbed SueAnne into their circle.

“Where do I toss this backpack? I can’t be holding it all day. Am I to throw it in a corner?”

“No, that won’t do. You have no sense of the rightness of things, Micheál. It comes from living in that cabin.” Nora glanced around. “Put it in SueAnne’s bedroom. Presents for you, dear. When you have a moment you might try on those knickers I found for you. You’ll be pleased, I think. They are Donegal wool, which wears like iron. Two pair, a loden green and a brown heather. Size six, wasn’t it? And, some oils.”

“Knee breeches? You must be joking.”

“They are most attractive, sensible, besides,” Nora said in a wounded tone. “SueAnne is not a woman to stay indoors. She is a painter. I was most careful to choose a backpack with zippered pockets to spare for an infinite number of tubes of ochres and umbers and sienna reds. I once read, if you are a writer you must love words, and if you wish to paint, sensuous colors lift you to great heights. I discovered at the convent that was not quite enough. You may adore the rich, melancholy umbers, but talent will out. Without it you are left with unsightly squiggles, much like your Pollock, I believe. Father Dan tells me you did a flying sketch of Declan’s Milucra, while you and Clara were at Rathmullan. May I see it?”

“Let’s eat first. Mary Molly is hungry. Susie, put the salmon on the table. Mary Molly, you sit here at the head of the table. Father Dan, there beside Mary Molly. Nora, over here. Micheál, sit by your mother.”

Mary Molly, wan with exhaustion, ate the salmon and brown bread, nodded, and agreed, and soon asked to be excused. “I’m no good to anyone. Take me home, Micheál.” She pressed Clara’s hand. “We’ll have a singsong at Mannion’s tomorrow night. SueAnne, bring her to me at ten.”

“I told him Mary Molly would not want to come for lunch today, that she would want to sleep. I told him to take her to the Shelbourne, and bring her home tomorrow, but nothing would do but he drive all the way from Dublin.”

“I venture to say, Clara, Mary Molly felt happy to be at the end of her journey here with you and SueAnne. Would you agree, Nora?”

“Father Dan is privy to the cravings of Mary Molly’s heart, Clara. We may trust his judgment. She was tired, poor dear, but the buoyant spirit was there. Subdued, perhaps, in need of rest, but at home, at peace. SueAnne, let’s take a breath of air in the garden, smell the roses. All this sitting.”

Leaving Mama and Father Dan to discuss travel after a certain age, the women walked mowed paths wandering through a series of garden rooms, one redolent of lavender, another dappled darkness under spreading oaks.

“Such serenity. The motor car has drowned not just Dublin’s noisy vitality but its hushed nights. I saw Paddy Pat cycling to Ballynahinch, as we came to you. Soundless as a skua.

“I was envious of you on Casey Bonfire Night. They take us from our islands, but we slip back. How do you find Charles Carroll? We share the odd job at the National Gallery. A brilliant partnership. We both crave perfection. His is the better eye. I tend to details. I have never understood Charles, divided, conflicted, self-destructive, supremely talented. He flees to Ard for relief. Father Dan contends it is his Anglo-Irish heritage bedeviling him.”

“What do you mean? He’s Irish Catholic.”

“It is never that simple in Ireland. His people were educated at Trinity, while we scribbled away in hedge schools. The chasm is unbreachable, the haughty Anglo, the democratic Irish speaker, tolerant, generous. Though Ard laughs at that absurd little boat of his, and understands him even less than I, it will protect him. He has chosen his earthly purgatory wisely. But, Ard will not trust Charles with what is dearest their hearts. It is you, my love, who have been given that charge. With the keeping, you lose Ard’s protection. Ard has it not to give.”

A call. “Where are you?”

“Here, Mama. We’re coming.” SueAnne put her arms around Nora. “I have become you.”

“Father Dan wants an Irish coffee, Susie. Do we have any Paddy?”

“We do, tucked behind the Scotch. I’ll fetch it. Shall I make coffee?”

“Clara and I will do the honors this evening. You are to provide entertainment. A fashion show.” Father Dan cleared his throat. Ahm m m. “The terrace will do nicely as a runway for a preview of the knickers. You’ll not be subject to Micheál’s buffoonery. You may feel confident in the present company. Nora, you will stir up the cream?”

The backpack lay on her reading chair, overstuffed arms broad enough for a cup of tea, vase of jasmine and a pile of books on the window sill, foot stool to the side. She studied the backpack across the room, reflecting on its size. How did Mary Molly ever manage? A porter, I suppose. Percy carried a pack that big in the early days, when we hiked the high mountains. Mine was smaller, but I probably could have managed the larger one. She lifted the pack carefully – its weight surprised her – and sat down in the chair. Rocking in the way of soothing a child, she caressed the green fabric, before inspecting the outside pockets. They were stuffed with meticulously wrapped tubes of artists’s oils, Nora’s ochres, umbers and sienna reds. Slipping off sheets of brown paper, she arranged the naked tubes on the sill.

Balancing the pack on the floor, she unzipped the main compartment. Dragging a pair of loden knickers from a crush of tissue, she gave them a hard shake, dropped them to the floor. Another layer of tissue protected the knee-length heather trousers. Impatient, she tossed them aside, jettisoning wads of crumpled paper. The pack was three-quarters empty before her fingers touched the first layer of banded bills.

She sat unmoving, hand at rest on shrouded packets, a tangled skein raveling to home.

 

The last installment of The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin, Part IV, Home, concludes on Pages, Sunday, April 22, 2012.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply