5. “Máire”

 

 

 

“L” –– hands splayed at 3 and 9

“O” –– easy at 11 and 1

“V” –– noon and 5

“E”–– 1 and 6

“LOVE”

Through a rude porthole, smearing the foggy bus pane, she semaphored urgent messages to the two lone figures byeing in the downpour:  “I LOVE YOU.” Pursing her lips, she blows extravagant kisses, waves frantically, smiling, crying.

The old woman stoic in mud- spattered wellies, thin scarf pulled tight over her skull, watches the drama impassively. Behind her a little boy, cold and wet, stamps first one foot and then the other, neck stiff, eyes roving. As the bus pulls onto the road, he wheels escaping into the heather-laced bog.

Over the months stretching into years, Máire did her best to keep the family bonds from fraying. Once a week Dessie, wire-rimmed glasses glinting, raced An Post’s green van up the rutted tract to Polly’s cottage. Unlatching the front door he dropped a fat envelope bright with foreign stamps on the window sill beside the red geranium. Sheets of onionskin covered with Máire’s exuberant fictions escaped Polly’s gnarled fingers on the opening, chattering exotics white among stained teacups. After Telecom Eireann dug the holes and set the poles fracturing the Conamara sky with strands of looping wire, Máire rang as often as she could to see how her mother and her son were getting on, concocting zany stories to stuff into awkward silences.

 ___

Years stole away, six they were by Máire’s own count, before her return to Conamara at the death of Uncle Sean. Sean’s mother and father rarely thought of, other brothers and sisters in America or the grave, no wife, no children, he laid his claim on the three of them, his sister Polly who made tea for him and fried rashers and gave him buttered slices of freshly baked brown bread, and Polly’s wild Máire Rua and Máire Rua’s poor lost wee one. To them he left five acres of rocky pasture where he grazed sheep since the days he was young and could drape a ram over his shoulder carrying it off to slaughter, and next to the sea, a one-room cabin, dirt floor solid as concrete. It was a gift of no use to them. Polly barely managing in the family home had no time for a dank, dark bachelor cabin, gone almost beyond repair. As for the sheep, the old woman was too frail to search for lost lambs in spring storms even if she had a mind to which she hadn’t. Donal favored the sea, rowing his curragh to drop fishing lines on the far side of deserted humps of islands.

Máire didn’t want to take charge of the sale, but she knew she had to. There was a long-legged Mayo man who claimed to be an auctioneer and a local solicitor back from from Dublin eager to make a few quid off the ignorance of the country people. That was the lot. Polly and Donal didn’t have a clue how to manage a sale on their own, and it was dead certain they wouldn’t be satisfied no matter what she did. She finally settled on a Dutch couple looking for a bit of quiet who agreed there was no need for an auctioneer or a tax man and paid in cash. Máire divided the money evenly, half for herself, half for Polly and Donal. Flying back to the States she shrugged off the trouble of it, content she had made life a little easier for all of them. She was happy, and, please God, they were happy.

Sitting now at the unlovely wood table, she wondered what they had done with the money. Warped doors hung ajar on two scarred plywood cupboards. A stained metal sink and drain board clutched uncertainly at the wall beneath the kitchen window, the grimy drain pipe exposed between crisscrossing supports. A blackened skillet squatted, welded to a propane burner. Máire remembered a red patterned linoleum. She had loved its brightness, freshly scrubbed, reflections from the turf fire jumping across it. She peered under the greasy cooker. Not a trace.  Inhaling a last drag on her cigarette she ground out the stub in a blacked oyster shell. She was not one to sit around and brood. The first thing was to buy a gallon or two of emulsion and whitewash the walls. She checked the time. Almost nine. Moran’s opened at ten. She made a rapid calculation. Good enough. She would have the kitchen and bathroom done by nightfall.

The shopkeeper and his wife greeted her with words she parodied back in the States after a glass or two of Burgundy made her bold, phrases of comfort with malice floating just behind the buoyant rhythms. Domiaic extended his hand. “You’re very welcome.  She was a grand woman, your Mother, God rest her soul.”

Bridgie came from behind the oak counter to gaze at her mournfully. “Isn’t it lucky you have Donal. He was a great comfort to Polly. ‘Tis a great gift, a child.”

“A fine lad. Handsome, too. The girls are mad for him.” Domiaic’s sly glance slid over Máire. “Pat can be proud of him.”

They never let you forget. Well, let them have their fun.  She trudged back to the cottage, a bucket in each hand, tossing her head in greeting to the occasional passing car.

“Welcome home, Máire. I’m sorry for your troubles.”

“Thank you, Josie. How you been keepin’?”  She showed her beautiful white teeth framed by the full, sensuous mouth.

“Máire, lovely to see you. A great loss for all of us, your dear Mother. What a pity you could not be here for the mass. The church was full to overflowing.”

“Oh, Nan, we’re getting old. It’s our own funerals we’ll be going to next.”

Relief was what she felt letting herself into the grimy cottage.  Begrudgers. The damned island was full of them. That American writer was wrong. She gave a quick shake of her head. You can go home again. No bother. She spread sheets of the Independent on the floor, pulled the press and its odd assortment of Polly’s keepsakes – vials of holy water, a St. Brigid’s cross, mass cards – into the middle of the room and had the kitchen walls finished before she allowed herself a pause to call Kevin.

“Oh, they’re dreadful, sizing you up like a ewe at auction.”  Máire glared out the window at two schoolgirls passing on the main road. “But, I’ve started the painting. The kitchen is done. The bathroom will only take an hour if I don’t collapse first. The worst of it is Donal. He hardly speaks to me.”

Listening to Kevin’s drum roll of complaint, her eyes appraised the cool, rough walls, white as the calla lilies holding their own against the bracken overtaking a remnant of garden. Tiger, Kevin intoned, was shedding everywhere. All he, Kevin, did was vacuum. He forgot to turn on the answering machine, and when the phone rang, he had stupidly answered it, talking too long, ruining a whole batch of prints.  Máire sighed. She hated being away from him.  He was so gloomy when she wasn’t around. But, that was the way of it. She had to sort things out for Donal. At the back of her mind she was thinking it might be best if he moved in with a couple of the lads for the summer. They could let the cottage for the holidays if she got it into shape in the next week. Donal would be happier with Marteen and Seamus than trying to manage by himself.  In November if he felt like it, he could move back.  Immersed in her own thoughts, Máire only gradually became aware of Kevin waiting for an answer.

“Stop fretting, darling. I’ll be back before you know it. I miss you, my pet and love you very, very much. Kisses.”

She took a couple more drags on her cigarette, made a quick survey of the yellowing basin, tub, toilet and set to work.  By evening she was soaking in six inches of hot water which was all the spluttering immersion heater had to offer, tired but victorious. She flinched hearing the swish of Donal’s oilskins sluicing across the floor to collapse with a dull thump in a corner of the kitchen, suspicioning a black smudge on her freshly painted wall, swallowing an impulse to lash out. A quarrel was the last thing she needed.

“Hi, Donal. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Shaking her feet to rid her toes of the froth at the bottom of the tub, she dried herself with a tattered towel, gave a quick rub to her hair and pulled on fresh jeans.

“Dinner.” Donal jerked his thumb toward the sink.

Following the airy line, Máire didn’t know which dismayed her more, the uncleaned plaice, a mess of open jaws and staring eyes caught in the metal basin, or the harshness in his voice. Not yet twenty, Máire reflected, and he’s already learned an old man’s brutish ways. He reminded her of Uncle Sean, filthy, red hair wild as a banshee’s. Whatever happened to the shy boy playing the penny whistle off by himself in a corner of the Tyrone gardens? Had she been wrong to take him from Ballymor where life had a sheen of gentility and leave him on this savage coast with Polly? Maybe, the two of them should have stayed in New Zealand. If Pat had been a decent father, Donal might have lived with him. No, Pat didn’t want Donal anymore than he wanted her.  Kevin wanted her. Kevin was her last chance. No need to worry about Donal.  Donal was young. He had lots of chances ahead of him. Donal just needed someone to teach him how to take advantage of them. Tomorrow, she would talk him into going back to school. If the cottage rented, it would be easy for him with a few quid in his pocket.  She would sail with him in the morning. Pack a nice lunch. Drop anchor off Dog’s Bay. Take a swim. The water was Donal’s playground. When he was little he leaped and dived, frisky as a dolphin, Pat spiraling deep below him, catching his ankle, Donal exploding in childish laughter.

“How long has it been since I’ve plaice right out of the sea? You can’t get it in the States. Thank you, Donal. I’ll fry it in lots of butter the way you like and boil some potatoes. Did you bring milk? I forgot it when I picked up the whitewash at Moran’s. How do you like the painting? It’s nice, isn’t it?”  She laughed up at him hacking ragged gashes in the fishes’ bellies, wielding Polly’s dented butcher knife with the skill of a professional cook. “Donal, we have to have milk. Do you mind? And, a loaf of bread. Here’s a fiver.” Máire dug a crumpled bill out of her pocket. “I’ll have dinner on the table by the time you’re back. No hot water for your bath till we’ve finished. I used it all up. Sorry.”

Donal ate rapidly, a man not interested in food, forking a second bite before he finished swallowing the first. He ignored Máire’s dwindling attempts at conversation, avoiding the plea in her eyes when he reached for the milk pitcher, dousing the dark, stewed tea, draining the cup in two deep gulps, pushed back from the table, chair raspy on concrete floor, his rising an incongruous, fluid motion. The irregular spitting of water against the iron tub arrhythmically beat a hollow coda to the depressing meal.

She flaked the last of the golden fillet determined despite all to enjoy the pure taste of the sea. Pouring a cup of tea, she carried it outside, bracing her back against the wall. A ewe and her lamb munching through the breaches in the rocks, the lamb bleating softly, the ewe’s baaing reply, the only sounds. Donal’s step across the kitchen heavy as a sheep farmer’s broke the silence.

“Are you leaving?”

“Going for a pint.”

“It’s awfully late.” Before the words were out of her mouth, she knew it was not late.  The pubs were empty before ten but for an old bachelor or two with no place to go. Still, she persisted. “I thought we could get up early and go to the islands. I’ll make sandwiches.”

“I’m busy tomorrow.”

His frame filled the sky. Big. Sound. She studied the figure moving away from her, graceful in an odd sort of way. Her wee laddie. A stranger with no time for her. She’d never been any good at being a mother. Didn’t suit her, somehow. She did the best she could. Tears of regret wet her cheeks as she angrily fought against them. Forlornly, she walked into the field, zigzagging between the boulders, searching for the ewe and lamb hidden in the night’s gloom, composing a story about the scraggly creatures to amuse Kevin.

Days of steady drizzle dissolved one morning into dazzling sunshine crashing against granite, splintering into slivers of light. Máire climbed out from under Polly’s duvet, hopping across the chilly floor in her bare feet to the door. Nary a cloud. Determined not to lose what might be the only chance to finish the outside painting, she hurried through breakfast. Shunning the long-handled roller Domiaic urged on her when gathering more supplies, she climbed the unsteady ladder clutching a brush and can of whitewash wondering if she hadn’t been too proud. The doubt vanished in the satisfaction she felt with each fresh band of paint, first a cross as Pat had taught her, followed by long, sweeping strokes. The bay side of the house was drying by the time Donal, red-eyed and sullen, not fully awake, appeared in the doorway glancing Máire’s way without actually acknowledging her presence.

“Why do you bother? You’ll be leaving next week.”

“The Bourdieus called. They’re coming to look at it Sunday.  If they like it, they’ll take it for July and August.”

Máire sat on the rough stone of the garden wall, extending her long legs, contemplating her handiwork. Starched muslin curtains fluttered gently at the two front windows offsetting the brilliant slash of red which was now the front door. She had seduced a garrulous cousin into scything the bracken leaving only the slender calla lily stalks. Masses of tiny volunteers shot through the exposed ground gathering in dense mats of tiny flowers scattered among the rocks.

“It’s quite charming, Donal.”

“Fine for you to say, but where am I to bed down?”

“I thought we decided . . . ” She stopped as Donal disappeared back inside the cottage. He drinks too much. It puts him in a temper. If the Bourdieus take it, he’ll see we can make some money, then, he’ll come round. Feathery clouds gathering on the horizon pulled her from her reverie and sent rushing to the gable end of the cottage. Damned rain!

 ___

She twisted her hair into a rough coil, anchoring it with tortoise combs, slipping into the linen shift saved for a day of celebration. Two steaks marinated on the metal drain board.  An oil cloth printed with four-leaf clovers covered the kitchen table. A good breeze flushed the paint odors out the cottage. Everything that could, shone. Máire sang as she readied the room for her dinner party, snatches of songs remembered from summer days in the kitchen with Polly. “Keep your hands off red-haired Mary for tomorrow we’ll be wed.”

It was past eleven when the singing stopped. Donal was not coming home. The tears coming and going the past three weeks streamed down her cheeks. The room full of promise moments ago, empty. A flash of anger buoyed by a sense of righteousness steadied her. She left Kevin alone, floundering, to fly over and set things straight for Donal. Did all the work. Never a word of reproach. And, this was the thanks she got. He was out messing while she sat alone listening to those blasted sheep, not so much as setting foot inside a pub the whole bloody time. She had promised Kevin, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this wasn’t on. A little chat and a laugh. Where was the harm in that? She wrapped herself in a velvet jacket and headed for town.  P.J.’s accordion reached her well before she reached the Ostan. It made her hesitate, stepping off the road out of the glare of headlights, not certain she wanted to go on, face a packed room of challenging smiles. Half thinking to go back home, she heard a man’s voice call her name.

“Máire. Máire Mulkerrins. It’s Peadar.”

He didn’t have to say who it was. After all these years she still recognized the voice.

“I’ve been up North,” he put out his hand, standing close, the smell of him entering her nostrils. “I’m sorry about your Mother.”

They jostled their way to the bar, Peadar snagging a stool from a shifting throng of men at the end of the counter. He nursed a pint, she sipped an Irish, talking, catching up on the years.

“They said you were back while I was in London.”

“When Uncle Sean died. That Dutch couple tore down the cabin.”

“Eddie built the new place. Did a nice job.”

“Where’s Catherine?”

“That didn’t last. She married a Dub. Has a couple of kids. You? They say you’re in the States. What happened to New Zealand?”

She began telling him about Kevin, how he loved her, and the evenings spent drinking wine on the deck, the fiery sun dropping below the horizon, explaining Kevin’s genius at photography which was offbeat and wonderful though difficult to sell. When she began telling him about her job which kept them afloat, he started to laugh and she stopped, an unsteady shame licking at the edge of consciousness.

“I ran into Pat a while back at Larne. I was up from London. He was off to Liverpool.  We had a couple of jars. He asked about you. I told him Donal was with Polly.”

Máire on her fourth whiskey felt time collapsing. “He never comes to see him, does he?”

“He was only back a couple of weeks that summer.”  Peadar’s reply was cautious.

“A couple of weeks.” Máire looked away.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

They walked on the pier, the moon misshapen in its coming, dusting the fishing trawlers with chalky shadows.

“Why didn’t you marry him?”

“He didn’t want to marry me.”

It was a bitter admission, but she was too drunk to smooth it out. They leaned against the sea wall, old lovers, Peadar’s arm reassuring around her shoulders. Sounds from the sea, sounds once familiar as breathing, eased the ache in Máire’s heart, the rising and falling of the trawlers, soft knock of wood panels, a decaying Hooker’s creaking mast. She bent her head trying to identify an indistinct rustling, low, fuzzy, trying to remember.

Peadar squeezed her arm, murmuring in her ear, his voice amused. “Over there. In the Grainne. Come on.”  They slipped, gleeful, past random heaps of crab pots, listing over the trawler deck, laughing.

The shadows part; a slight figure emitting a wounded kitten’s cry struggles, crawling to the forward cabin.  A gruff, indignant voice issues from the deck. “Get the feck out of here.”  Peadar muscles Máire over the trawler railing toward the weeping child. “Take care of her.”  A cursing man leaps the void to meet Peadar’s menace. “You’ve lost your senses, Donal.” Peadar’s huge fist finds its mark.

The air swoons against the staccato crack of bone against bone, a woman screams and the red blood gushes.

 

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