7. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin” (2)

PART II

PORT OF CALL

 

Tall frame bent low, the stranger stooped to look in the face of the old woman. What was she on about giving out like that in a voice to set the banshee wailing?

“What’s the matter with Ireland?”

Mama, hungry, had interrupted her tirade to down several gulps of soup, but at the question stopped eating, and flourished her spoon in the air.

“Alice in Wonderland. I never know what to expect. Look at you! I never saw you in my life. You barge in. Interrupt. Just like that rabbit.” Intuition locked in. “You’re probably drunk.”

The tall fellow, amused, thrust a boot between rungs of an empty stool, and pulled it next to the table. Flinging himself onto the cushion, he pressed his case. “So. What’s the problem?” He slapped his hands flat on his knees in a gesture of exasperation.

Mama decided to ignore him, returning instead to the task at hand. She methodically spooned pureed soup from a small cup, dipping, swallowing, dipping, swallowing, with resolute, unvarying rhythm. SueAnne’s cursory interest in the dossers and drinkers of The Yellow House narrowed its focus to the man at the table. Continuing to nurse a whiskey, she tracked the collision with studied disinterest.

Unable to resist a rapt audience for long, Mama resumed her complaint. “They won’t sell us a car. At home you can buy a car any time you want, even if you don’t have any money. Here, even if you have money, they won’t sell it to you. It’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.” Mama’s contempt increased. “Are you a car salesman?”

He reared back on the stool. “Do I look like a car salesman?”

Mama studied him. Wiry black hair sticking out in all directions irked her. He hadn’t shaved in days. There was grime under his fingernails. The moth- eaten black turtleneck looked slept in and the too- tight Levi’s were streaked with grease.

“No,” she conceded. “You look like a bum.”

He shot a sideways glance at SueAnne. “Do you think I’m a bum?”

Before she could reply, the waitress set a fresh pot of tea in front of Mama, and slid a Paddy and soda across the table in her direction.

“Excuse me. I didn’t order another drink.”

“Himself did.” The waitress cocked her head toward the man on the stool.

“No, thank you, really.”

“Drink up. It’s good for you. Cáíth siorradh, down the hatch.” He threw back his head, tossing off the last of a Guinness in one gulp, staring fiercely at SueAnne.

SueAnne stared back taking in the muscular body ending in long legs sprawled carelessly into the room. He was a grown man, all right, but there was a whiff of the small boy about him. A challenging catch me if you can lift of his jaw struck a chord. He’s like me.

She held her glass in midair, breaking off between sips, to play the game. “It’s conceivable.”

He snorted, and turned to Mama. “So. Why can’t you buy a car?”

“Those nosy salesmen won’t sell us a car, because Susie doesn’t have an Irish driver’s license. What business is it of theirs, if she has a license or not? She’s not asking them to give her permission to drive, she’s asking them to sell her a car. It makes you wonder what goes on in some people’s heads.”

“Are you trying to buy a new car?”

“Of course.”

The man was thoughtful. “You’re Yanks, aren’t you?”

“We’re Americans, if that’s what you mean.”

“What are you doing trying to buy a car? Why don’t you lease one like everyone else? Is your family here? Where are you staying?”

“We’re staying in an old hotel where the steps creak. That’s what Susie likes.”

“What’s the name of it?” “

The Shelbourne.”

His thick brows shot up in surprise. “The Shelbourne. Huh.”

“Come on, Mama, we’d better go.”

“You haven’t finished your whiskey.” Mama hated it when SueAnne insisted on leaving as she was beginning to enjoy herself.

“Sit down.” The man sounded as annoyed as Mama. “I’m trying to sort this out.” He shook his head. “Is she always like this? I don’t know how you stand it.”

A low voice from across the room interrupted. “Micheál! We’re making a move.”

The stranger threw a barely perceptible nod toward the two men in oilskins heading out the door, continuing his conversation with Mama. “Maybe, I can find you a car.”

“Is that your name? How do you spell it? I’ve never heard anyone called that before. Me-holl? Is it a nickname?”

“It’s not a nickname; it’s my name. Micheál. Micheál Ó Flaharta. What’s so strange about that? You don’t speak the Irish? You’re no better than the Brits.” He looked at her accusingly. “What’s your name, Mamo?”

“It’s not Mamo.” Mama was beginning to warm to the wild-haired man. “It’s Clara Hutcheson. That’s my daughter, SueAnne.”

Micheál extended his hand. “Fáilte, Clara.” In a rapid gesture, as if to seal a shaky agreement before it unraveled, he reached out and grabbed SueAnne’s hand. “Fáilte, SueAnne.”

SueAnne startled, drew back. The hard, rough grip tightened.

“You don’t believe I can get you a car.”

The steady pulsing of his blood merged with hers. Mmmm! I better get out of here. She looked to Mama counting on her garrulousness to shore up her own defenses. Arranging the fur collar, standing on tiptoe, trying for a glimpse of herself in the mirror behind the bar, Mama failed to notice SueAnne’s indecision. She ticked off her options. They had run out of dealerships in Dublin. They might take the train South; see if they could do any better in Cork City. They could buy a used car from the classifieds, and hope it didn’t fall apart before they got out West where she hoped to find a cottage. Stay put for awhile. Or, hole up in Dublin till the money ran out. She floundered. Days of sliding across the seat of a moldering taxi, wet, cold, dripping like a seal on an ocean rock, shook her confidence. The corps of maddening men with their insufferable recitations of an absurd, and, it crossed her mind, possibly imaginary, law forbidding them to sell her a car without an Irish license had done her in. Laboring to piece together irregular parts of a misty future, she squeezed the wild man between belching buses and broken down cars. To hell with it. What did they have to lose? She drained the Paddy and soda.

“I believe you can.”

Micheál kicked back the stool. “Come on, Mamo. Let’s find this lady a car.”

Vehicles packed the broken pavement butting the length of The Yellow House, small foreign bangers mostly, old and showing signs of hard use with cracked windows and rusting fenders. Angled every which way, they left escaping drivers to design an exit route as best they could. Micheál zigged his way through the lot to a mud-caked Mercedes, looking no newer, maybe a little older, than the rest.

“You sit in the middle, Mamo. You sit next to her.”

“I can figure out where to sit.” The fresh air was having its effect. A slow dissolve to the clean, predictable, probably good in bed Tom Angleton left SueAnne chewing her thumbnail in annoyance.

“I don’t know. You seem to have a hard time making up your mind.” He plunked into the driver’s seat.

None of them spoke during the ride through Dublin’s winding streets. Squished between Micheál and SueAnne, Mama wavered between relief and regret. Micheál whistled cheerfully, bearing down on pedestrians hurrying across clogged intersections, nodding affably at the outraged faces raining curses in his wake. In the gathering dusk, SueAnne inspected the changing neighborhoods, unkempt, pebble-dashed row houses gave way to pale, cut-stone buildings, sedate Doric-columned Georgian doors, polished brass fittings gleaming. Traffic thinned. A green sign flickered by. Ballsbridge.

Without reducing speed, Micheál brooked two lanes of oncoming traffic braking unceremoniously on the sidewalk in front of a slender five-story house. “This is it.” He bounded up low, wide steps. “What are you waiting for?”

“I don’t want to climb those steps,” Mama whimpered. “I’ll wait for you here in the car.” Micheál’s erect figure, partially hidden behind the bleak light falling through the transom, loomed, martial and sinister.

“Mama,” SueAnne was stern, “you can’t sit here on the sidewalk in the dark in this car. He left the keys in the ignition. What if someone came up and decided to drive off. It’s not safe. You come with me.”

“All right,” Mama lowered her voice, “but I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, barging into the home of someone you don’t know. We haven’t been invited.”

“Micheál invited us.”

“Is this his home?” Mama’s voice sank to a murmur.

“I don’t know. It must be. He wouldn’t go visiting looking like that.” SueAnne was murmuring, too.

“Are you all coming, or am I to sleep on these steps?”

Mama reluctantly tapped her way up the broad staircase. “I am an old woman, Micheál. I can’t go fast.”

“Don’t be cranky. You’ll be happy once my cousin starts clucking over you.”

On cue, a handsome woman, graying hair piled high on her head, opened the door bathing the trio in incandescent light. “Micheál Ó Flaharta! I thought I heard voices out here. Look at you. You’re a disgrace. What are you up to?” Seeing the two women, her voice softened. “You poor dears. He has you standing outside on a night like this. You must be chilled to the bone.” She took Mama’s hand leading her to the sitting room. “Micheál, is she Mary Molly’s cousin from Boston? Poor darling. You’re all tired out. Sit here. I’ll have Bridie bring tea.” She left the room, her narrow skirt rustling, calling as she went, “Bridie. Bridie. We have guests.”

“That’s my cousin Nora. She’ll get you a car.” Micheál, satisfied SueAnne and Mama were reeling at this latest turn of events, leaned complacently against the wall.

“Micheál is absolutely right.” An ashen-faced man, tall and frail in priestly black, appeared before SueAnne. “I am Father Dan.” He shook SueAnne’s hand. “Nora arranged for me to purchase a wee Italian model which goes like a bomb and practically runs on fumes alone. Donegal. That’s the place.” Having done his duty by delivering this bit of advice to the newcomer and not feeling any compulsion to await her reply, he advanced on Micheál. “Micheál, have they run out of water in Ard?” He cleared his throat. Ahm m m. “Yes. That must be the answer. The Atlantic has gone dry.” He acknowledged Nora’s return with a bemused expression.

“Lord be to God, Father, look at him. The tinkers wouldn’t have him.”

“Nothing to be done, Nora, but clean him up. Come, Micheál. I’ll introduce you to the latest Dublin technology. Running water. Is it safe to let him use my cake of soap? It’s an English bar. Might not be strong enough to combat whatever is lurking in that beard. Well, we best get on with it. I’ll have to take my chances.”

Nora appealed to her guests for sympathy. “He is a hard lad to keep clean. Still, what is the harm in a bit of dirt? In Mary Molly’s day there was precious little else to eat. Bless you, Bridie. We are perishing of thirst.”

“What do you think, Nora? Will he do?” Father Dan stepped to the side of the doorway offering a full view of Micheál sauntering down the hallway.

SueAnne sat quietly, nibbling a scone, smiling at Nora, cloaking a fuzzy discomfort under a mantle of self-deprecation. Disquieted by her attraction to this wild man, she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was that appealed to her. He was just so, just so, she didn’t know for sure just what.

“Perhaps, Micheál, now that we are cozy in front of the fire, sipping tea, chatting like old friends, you would be so kind as to tell us poor women what we are all doing here.” Nora held Mama’s hand in her own. “Is it some grand announcement you are going to make?”

“She wants to buy a car.”

“No, Micheál. That won’t do. We are not at a fair. What would Mary Molly say? Please be so kind as to introduce us.”

“Mamo, this is my cousin Nora Keaney. She talks like a Dub, but she’s a fine countrywoman from Ard. Nora, this is Clara Hutcheson and her daughter SueAnne. They’re Yanks. These ladies want to buy a new car. I told them you could get them one.”

“I said to them Donegal was the place.” Father Dan drew closer to the fire. “That little car you found for me goes like a bomb. I told them that, Nora,” Ahm m m. “when they first came in.”

“Maybe they want a real car, Father.”

“Not everyone needs to show how grand he is by driving a Mercedes, Micheál.”

“Have you tried Murphy’s out on the Ring Road, Miss Hutcheson? They have acres of automobiles. I wanted to buy one of those new ones with a sunroof. Let the wind blow in my hair. It was hard to say no, but, oh, my, they are dear.”

“It’s SueAnne. SueAnne Larkin.”

“Didn’t Micheál say Hutcheson?”

“That’s my mother.”

“Of course. Are you from the North?”

“No, we’re Americans.”

“Yes. But your family. Are they from the North?”

“I think the Hutchesons are from Scotland.” SueAnne offered tentatively.

“You see how it is, Father,” Nora took up an ongoing conversation. “They don’t pay attention to old wounds in America. There’s not all this ancestor worship. They get on with their lives. There is no knee-capping in Chicago. I greatly admire that.”

“They didn’t have hedge schools in America, Nora. Some wounds never heal.”

“If Michael Collins had lived –”

“Nora, Nora, you cannot build a nation on a bicycle.”

“What you need is Johnson’s motor car.” Micheál broke into a growly baritone. “ ‘We’ll send a wire to Johnson, to meet us at Glencar.’ ”

“That’s what we’re about. A motor car. It is almost impossible to keep you in the present, Father Dan. Or, Micheál either. Why, Miss Larkin, can you not buy a car at Murphy’s? And, if Mrs. Hutcheson is not Mary Molly’s Boston cousin, Micheál, where did you come upon this lovely lady and her beautiful daughter? Did you capture them as they debarked from the ferry? Coming here covered with grease can only mean you’ve been fiddling around with that boat.”

“Nora, the Máire Rua is part of our heritage.” Father Dan suffered no aspersions on his Celtic dreams. “Fiddling around with that boat, as you put it, is one of the few things Micheál does of which I approve.”

Revived by Bridie’s tea and weary of the talk, Mama lifted her voice in protest. “We met Micheál at The Yellow House. He said he could get us a car. That’s why we’re here.”

“At The Yellow House?” Father Dan looked to SueAnne for confirmation.

“We’ve been trying for over a week to buy a car,” SueAnne began.

Father Dan interrupted. “You were looking to buy a car at The Yellow House?”

“No, Father.” Micheál hunched on an ornately carved footstool, after Nora’s look of alarm warned him off her brocaded chairs. “The ladies were having tea. Mamo wanted a bit of comfort. That’s all.”

“How did you meet them, Micheál?” Nora’s voice cut in. “They came right up to you, did they, you covered with grease, and your face unrecognizable under a five day beard? Miss Larkin, may I call you SueAnne, dear? Please tell us how you fell into the clutches of this wicked looking lad? We’ll get no sense from him. Please, Father Dan, let her tell us herself.”

“They won’t sell us a car in Dublin. I don’t have an Irish driver’s license. I can’t get one because I don’t hold an Irish passport. We expect to be in Ireland for some time. Renting a car is far too expensive. Fatigued from running around pleading for someone to sell us a car, we stopped for tea. Mama was complaining about the stubbornness of the Irish bureaucracy. Micheál heard her, I suppose everyone in the pub heard her, said he could get us a car, and here we are.”

“I wasn’t as loud as that. Micheál was eavesdropping.”

“It is lucky for us he was, Mrs. Hutcheson. We might never have met you and your charming daughter. What a pity that would have been. You did exactly the right thing to put your fate in Micheál’s hands. I promise you tomorrow you shall have a new car. You will no longer be obliged to put up with this idle talk. Look at the time. I mislaid my manners somewhere between the front door and the parlour. I’ll ask Bridie to lay out supper. Oh, you must join us. No, I insist. Where would my reputation go, if I sent you into the night without a chop to soothe the stomach or a drop to warm the heart? I shudder to think.”

As the last of Bridie’s chocolate oranges disappeared, the conversation of Nora Keaney’s guests dipped to the lowings of content. Father Dan ladled hot milk into drams of honey and whiskey offering the first glass to Mama with a flourish. “For Mrs. Hutcheson, a scaltin to soothe away the pains of our efficient, highly laudable, though at times, I fear, overzealous Irish bureaucracy.”

“Thank you, Father Dan.” The delicate crimson of the half-emptied glass of burgundy echoed on Mama’s high cheekbones. “I put up a fuss when Susie said we were going to Ireland. I didn’t want to come. She talked me into it. Susie always gets her way. She’s just like her father. I remember when Jack was bootlegging in Missouri, I never wanted to go with him either, but I always did.”

“Bootlegging, Mrs. Hutcheson?”

“During prohibition. You couldn’t buy whiskey, so you made your own. Moonshine. Kicked like a mule. Up in the mountains, there was a still in every hollow, and a Revenuer behind every tree. When we’d hear they were coming, Jack cranked up the model-T, stashed his .357 under the seat, off we’d go. I was scared to death most of the time, but Jack loved it.”

“We call it poteen in Ireland, Mamo. I’ll get you some when you and your daughter get to Ard. You’ll be dancing on the table.”

“I’m not going to Ard, Micheál, wherever that is. If I can’t go home, I’m staying right here. I want Bridie to teach me how to make scones the next time I come over. They’re better than my sour cream biscuits.”

SueAnne stirred. “How are you going to come back, if we never leave?”

“I’ll take you to the hotel.” Micheál was out of his chair.

“Where are you staying, SueAnne? Is it far from here?”

“Micheál was raging through the streets, Nora. I am thoroughly confused. I’m not sure where we are. Are we in Ballsbridge?”

“Jury’s is just down the street.”

“We’re at the Shelbourne. Is that far?”

Nora’s eyes met Father Dan’s. “No, it’s not far, SueAnne. I’ll ring up a taxi.”

“These ladies don’t need a taxi when they have a fine chauffeur like me.”

“No, Micheál. You cannot deliver Mrs. Hutcheson to the Shelbourne looking like that. I would ask Father Dan to do the honors, but he is a terrible driver after dark. I’m sorry, Father, but the truth will out. Ronán is the one for the task. I can rest comfortably knowing he is keeping our friends safe from harm.”

“What about the motor car, Nora?”

“Oh, Father, I forgot our dilemma. Leave it with me. I’ll ring you in the morning, SueAnne, after I’ve attended to the details. Excuse me, I’ll call Ronán.”

“I’m going to make a move.”

“Are you not spending the night with us?”

“No, Father, the Máire Rua is tired of the Irish Sea. We are off to the Atlantic. Tides up in a couple of hours.”

“Safe journey, Micheál. God bless.”

“Thank you, Father.” In the doorway, he lingered. “Slán, SueAnne.” And, was gone.

“Ronán is on his way. We’ll chat in the morning. You’ll have your car by nightfall, Mrs. Hutcheson, I promise you that.”

Father Dan pulled aside window draperies, glossing the disappearance of Ronán’s taxi with its two muddled passengers into a Stygian fog. Nora came to stand beside him, pondering the darkening shroud, total, irreversible.

“Where do you stand, Nora?” Father Dan cleared his throat. Ahm m m. “Were your guests merely deranged, or are they thirty-two county women? Has Micheál delivered us two couriers for the lads up North?”

 

 

“Room Service!”

Three raps on the door marked 705 interrupted Mama’s decipher of the morning newscast. Susie said it was English, but she wouldn’t have bet on it. She caned the TV off button, leaned sideways, adjusted her glasses to hear better.

Two more knocks.

“Room service, ma’am.”

“Just a minute.” The chain rattled. A bolt clicked. Mama poked her head out. “What are you doing here?”

“Is this the thanks I get for finding you a car? You don’t recognize me, maybe. A sheep shearer from Wales cut my hair for fifty p. Where’s SueAnne?”

“Susie isn’t here. She’s looking for a Herald Tribune.”

The Irish Times isn’t good enough for your daughter? Didn’t you teach her anything?”

“Susie doesn’t think like me, Micheál. She thinks like her father. That’s why we’re always in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble are you in, Mamo?”

“We’re running from the law, but don’t tell Susie I told you.”

“Is that right? I think you’re funnin’ me, but there’d be no harm in it. Before the Brits hanged old Dermody, he shouted out, ‘It’s not with the law I was. It was with the people I was.’”

“I don’t think I want to be hanged.”

“So. We won’t let them hang you. Are you going to bring me in for tea?”

“You know I don’t have any tea.”

“Then, we’ll have tea in the lounge. Put on your shoes. I can’t be disgraced by you gadding around the Shelbourne in bedroom slippers. And, don’t be talking that nonsense about running from the law in front of the Dublin gentry.”

A half an hour later, SueAnne walked into Mr. Hanrahan’s foyer clutching a newspaper, and ran smack into the manager’s manicured hand.

“Good morning, Miss Larkin. Your mother is with Mr. Ó Flaharta, there,” he signified with the merest inclination of his head, “in front of the fireplace.” Sure enough, there they were. Micheál chatting up the ginger-haired waitress. Mama chewing on a scone. “He really isn’t the sort your mother should be chummy with, Miss Larkin. He has rather a reputation.”

“What sort of reputation, Mr. Hanrahan?”

“Oh, not criminal, Miss Larkin, nothing like that. We wouldn’t allow him in the Shelbourne if he was a council house lad. I venture to say he is relatively harmless, but I feel obliged to tell you, in complete confidence of course, that our Mr. Ó Flaharta is something of a bounder. He’s handsome enough, I’ll give him that. Has great time for the women. Loves them and leaves them, I believe, is how you put it in America. Do take care of it.” Mr. Hanrahan bestowed a withering smile on SueAnne, as he executed an authoritative about face.

SueAnne remained where Mr. Hanrahan flagged her down, pixilated by the tableau in front of the fireplace. Young women in tweed skirts and leather jackets glided, wraithlike, across shifting space. In the eddy of light swirling about them, a strong-boned hand lifted a fragile cup. Black curls merged with black coated bellmen hastening along unmarked paths. A tilt of the head, a drawing back of the shoulders, a rapid nod. What a painting he’d make, here with all the operatic overtones. Frock-coated Alfredo in Traviàta. No. She shook her head. Too obvious. The Countess’s young lover in Die Fledermaus? Too eager. The amorous Duke of Mantua. A tenor. Never mind. Better than the Don. “La costoro avvenenza e qual dono, the beauty of woman is a pleasant gift.” Yes!

A second arm raised. Mama spotted SueAnne standing rooted, and beckoned her on. SueAnne picked her way slowly past tables laden with pints, teapots, champagne flutes in direct challenge to Mr. Hanrahan’s scathing criticism, assuming an uptown walk acquired long years ago, jetsam from a frantic fling with an English lord. She glanced first at one table and then another, checking if there might be someone worth a nod. Her spirits soared as gray eyes charted her advance. A shiver roiled her insides. Damn. Brother John was right. I have gone crazy.

It was left to the ginger-haired waitress to break the spell. “Micheál, are you going be a gentleman and get the lady a chair, or are there no gentlemen in Conamara?” She pulled an armchair close to SueAnne. “Make yourself comfortable, ma’am. It seems Mr. Ó Flaharta is of little use today.”

“Was old swallowtail trying to get you in the back office? He was cozying up all right.”

“He told me your life story.”

“What did he say?” Mama’s face lighted up.

“He said Micheál was a bounder. Loves ‘em and leaves ‘em.”

“Did you tell him Micheál is getting us a car? When is that boy coming, anyway?”

“Nora said Ronán would be here at ten. It’s ten- thirty. I’ll ask at the desk. See if there is a message.”

“Maybe, your transport’s already here.”

“If you knew the boy was here, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“Where is Ronán?”

“Ronán’s not coming. It’s me you’ll be going with.”

“Nora said Ronán would drive us to Donegal, and that is who we’re going with.”

“You’ll have your fill of tea before Ronán gets here.” Micheál poured a third cup, added two spoonfuls of sugar and a liberal helping of milk.

Mama folded and unfolded her napkin.

“I’m going to call Nora.” “

Bridie will tell you she is listening to Major Donovan’s lies, and will be taking dinner out.”

“I don’t think your driving us is a good idea. I think Mama and I should wait for Ronán.”

“I told you, didn’t I, Ronán’s not coming. Flanagan’s closes at five. If you want to attend to business, we better make a move.”

Mama trailed Micheál through the lounge leaving SueAnne to finish tea alone. Duped, she took her time, thoughts wandering. Pensively, she heard her Daddy’s voice, life goes as life must, sighed, and examined the delicate handstitching on the napkin edges, Irish linen from up North, the finest in the world. The mills had shut recently putting paid to that luxury. The Troubles, I suppose. The Dublin papers were full of the I.R.A. prisoners’s refusal to wear British prison uniforms, wrapping themselves in soiled bedding in protest at treatment as common criminals. Outsized headlines read, ON THE BLANKET. 1978. In Northern Ireland’s six counties it might as well have been 1916. The Brits never could get it right in Ireland, and the Irish Republican Army would push until they all drowned in the sea.

No Brits marred the wintry world’s unfurling of this sparkling Dublin day. Window boxes splendidly decked in red geraniums halloed the pale dawn. Quivering drops of morning dew shimmied down wrought iron window cages. Around St. Stephen’s Green, traffic lay down a bath of fluid color backlit by splintering sun. Micheál entertained the top hatted doorman with Ard gossip uninterrupted by early arrivals toward whom the attendant directed a perfunctory bow. Mama guarded the luggage, steeling herself against the eternal wait for SueAnne.

“Are you here at last? Marty was about asking me to leave, and stop blocking traffic.”

An aged bellman, shoulders sloping from decades of traveling donkey-like with heavy bags, hurried to SueAnne’s side. “Where would you like your luggage, Miss Larkin?”

“In the boot, Tommy. Where else would she want it?”

Tommy slammed the boot hatch; SueAnne held out her hand. Tommy accepted the folded note with a show of indifference, “Thank you, Miss Larkin.”

“American ladies spoil you lads,” Micheál fixed him with a dour look. “You’ll have no time for us Paddys, if this keeps up.”

“You are leaving us, Miss Larkin.” Mr. Hanrahan stepped in front of Marty to open the door. “It is not often our guests depart in such esteemed company. Where did you make the acquaintance of these lovely Americans, Mr. Ó Flaharta? Surely, not in one of our public rooms.”

Mama, first in line, answered the question. “We met Micheál at The Yellow House. He’s getting us a car.”

“The Yellow House! Really, Mr. Ó Flaharta?”

Micheál turned the ignition. “You better get in, Miss Larkin, and let these lads get on with their work.”

“Good luck, Miss Larkin.” The manager’s sardonic voice overlapped the accelerating engine.

They drove Ireland’s wild seacoast, the narrow road unmarked. Small trawlers bumped aged piers. Fishermen in brown serge jackets, dark caps pulled low, signaled with a jerked thumb as the car sped by. At a vee in the road Micheál swung left. The land fanned out. Tile-roofed farm houses, bedraggled in scaling whitewash, crouched in broad valleys. Gentlemanly gray granites perched on rounded knolls. Mama had traveled too many roads in her time to show much interest in yet another, but Micheál did his best.

“We’re flying past the Battle of the Boyne. It’s where the Brits unmanned us. That tin hat Cromwell stomped us into the ground. The Apprentice Boys march through Portadown every July twelfth beating those infernal Orange drums, and not a Catholic can get near them.”

“Big story on the hunger strike in the Herald Tribune. It didn’t say how many I.R.A. prisoners were interned in the Maze, but it quoted Bobby Sands’s sister on their solicitors’s demands for political status.”

“Maybe, those lads need more than solicitors, SueAnne. An extra gun or two wouldn’t do any harm.”

The wretchedness slumbering below the battleground’s sheep-grazed fields was pricked awake, stirred. Urgent winds sang three hundred years of implacable demand for blood sacrifice. Unkempt animals tossed horned heads in anguished lament. Unheeding, the battered black car rushed on.

Flanagan’s was located in a flat-roofed cinderblock building on the outskirts of Donegal. Cropped fields bordered the muddy lot. Sacks of coal lay on pallets beside the BP petrol pumps across the way. Up the street, a church spire lifted its shaft above a cluster of two and three story buildings.

“Micheál.” A portly man in white shirt emerged from behind the show room window. “Nora rang to say Ronán was on his way. Where did you heave the poor lad?” He circled the car, smiling in the window. “Miss Larkin, I am glad to see you safe and sound. Micheál always leaves us in doubt. Come with me. We’ve papers to sign. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Joe Flanagan, Nora’s cousin. I’d be out of business, but for her. Give her my regards when next you see her. You’ll want to sign here. You don’t believe in banks. That shows good sense. Seven thousand pounds, Miss Larkin. We’ll forget the two-twenty-five. Luck money, we call it in the West. The tank is full, and ready to go. Look at Mrs. Hutcheson. Doesn’t she look grand? Blue is her color. It is just the right size for her. Do go slow until you are comfortable on our side of the road. We don’t want to see the little car all dinged up. Safe journey, Miss Larkin. Will I see you tonight, Micheál? No? Back to the sea. The Máire Rua must be lonely. God bless!” Joe reached for the ringing phone.

SueAnne straggled after Micheál. “Gosh, thanks. You and Nora have been so good to us. Have you a bill for me?”

“You can buy me a pint.”

“I would love to,” finishing off the day drinking a whiskey with Micheál Ó Flaharta suited her down to the ground, “but I can’t. We’ve reservations at Rathmullan. Dinner’s at seven.”

“Is that all you know? Posh places? Too good to hang around with the locals? How did you get to The Yellow House? Slumming?”

“Have dinner with us. We’ll drink to independence from those damned Dublin salesmen.”

“There would be no time for us at Rathmullan House. You know that. Maybe, that’s what you want.” The already familiar quick shake of the head. “Slán.”

One by one drivers hurrying home dropped into abrupt driveways tunneling through hedges of fuchsia and rhododendron, leaving SueAnne and Mama to their fate. On Ramelton hill, SueAnne braked slightly. Slow, cautioned the stenciled letters on the crest. Slower, it commanded a third of the way down. Unshaded shop lights poured yellow onto pedestrian walks, but the high street curving through town was empty.

The smell of the sea, faint at first, then strong in their nostrils, seeped into the car. A heavy blow beat the rain across the car hood. Darkness settled in. SueAnne pushed hard along unexpected straightaways, geared down on whiplash curves, trying to outrun the unraveling road. Then, she almost missed it. Gnarled tree trunks, bare limbs shuddering in the wind, constricted Rathmullan’s unmarked entrance to little more than a boreen. A quarter of a mile in, the road broke free pouring into a broad meadow. At the far end overlooking a sheltered garden, a large square house with mansard roof dominated the turbulent Atlantic-fed southern shore of Loch Swilly.

“We saw the headlights. You must be drenched.”

Anthony Cuffe, casual in Aran pullover, hastened to make things right. His family opened the hotel in the Thirties, and kept it going through the dark days of The Troubles. Apolitical himself, he welcomed whoever appeared at his door, sheltered them, fed them, sent them on their way. Though he might not acknowledge it, innkeeping at Rathmullan had aspects of a secular ministry.

“Mark will get your bags. Mary show Miss Larkin and Mrs. Hutcheson to their room. We’re serving dinner now. When you’re ready, your table will be waiting. Shall I send a drink up? One whiskey. Will you have tea, Mrs. Hutcheson? Right.”

Delivering a message at the end of dinner, no one would have suspected the unflappable Anthony Cuffe to be victim of an immoderate curiosity. “You have a visitor in the drawing room, Miss Larkin. Mr. Micheál Ó Flaharta will be joining you for coffee. Shall I have dessert brought in by the fire?”

“Thank you. Isn’t that nice, Mama? Company.”

Mama was every bit as curious, and considerably more suspicious, than the innkeeper. “Is something going on I don’t know about, Susie?”

“Mama!”

Lounging against the fireplace, Micheál straightened as Mama entered, and in spite of himself looked past her to SueAnne sallying forth from the corridor.

The Anglo-Irish drawing room, high molded ceiling and pale glazed walls, anchored Rathmullan’s view of sweeping, swooning Swilly. Tall windows kept the storm at bay, clear sheets of glass, now turbid with lacerating rain. The room was almost empty. Early in the evening guests abandoned public spaces for the sequestered hush of private rooms. An elderly couple rested on a damask divan overlaid with sprays of gold peonies. Speaking in low tones, the woman, back gracefully curved, leaned toward the old man. On the far side of the hearth, a balding, round-shouldered man, feet propped on an ottoman, shepherd’s crook lamp bowed over his shoulder, read from a leather bound book. Trancelike, his hand strayed hesitantly and ceaselessly over a side table searching for an elusive tumbler of Scotch.

“Magee’s had this old hunting jacket they couldn’t give away, so I took it off their hands.”

“I barely recognized you, you look so handsome. What took you so long? I was beginning to miss you.”

“How could you miss him? We just said goodbye. Every time I think you’re gone, Micheál, here you are.”

Mamo, you know you’re happy to see me. You should be giving me a kiss.” He looked gravely at SueAnne. “You’d like to give me a kiss, maybe.”

“It’s the storm that made me miss him, Mama. In the midst of it you’re intoxicated, but when you break through the door, drenched, hair flying, cold, you seek a kindred spirit. Micheál’s a kindred spirit.”

“I was thinking the same thing. Maybe, we’re cousins.”

“She’s not your cousin, Micheál. Jack pretended to be Irish, stomping a clog dance, and drinking too much on St. Patrick’s Day, but he wasn’t, and neither is she.”

The elderly couple rose from their bed of peonies stopping to wish the late arrivals a pleasant evening. “We’ll be seeing you in the morning,” half question, half statement. “We planned to motor around Inishowen, but we’ll be house bound if this keeps up. Mr. Cuffe says we should expect the worst. Force 10, I believe.” The woman directed a sweet smile at Mama.

“You’ll find the lads well abed ‘til noon. There’ll be no messing on the sea tomorrow.”

“No, Mr. Ó Flaharta, no messing on the sea tomorrow,” the old man echoed the phrase good- humoredly, softly, not to disturb the reader in the corner.

“You know everyone. Tell me about those two.”

“The Burkes? They’re from up North, Portaferry. Married fifty years. Son’s an engineer, harbour master at Strangford across the strait. I see him now and again.”

Mama yawned. “You two stay here and talk all night. I’m going to bed.” From the depth of down pillows she fished clumsily for her cane. “I’ll never make all those steps.”

“May I escort you, Mrs. Hutcheson? I would consider it a great honor.” Anthony Cuffe left off prodding the hearth fire. “It has been years since a lovely American lady allowed me to accompany her to her room. We’ll leave these two to sort out the world’s troubles.” Linking arms, they promenaded through the public rooms, up the grand staircase, heads bent, speaking lightly.

“Tone is a gentleman.”

SueAnne nodded agreement.

Micheál shifted uncertainly. “We’ll have a brandy.” Seeking but finding no one, he strode the corridor colliding with the woman who served dinner to SueAnne and Mama. “Maggie, two brandies.”

They drank self-consciously, SueAnne diffident, Micheál uncommonly ill at ease. The balding man nodded good evening on his way out. Wind rattled the windows. The fire crackled. Micheál leaned back, straightened abruptly, picked up his glass, sat it down untouched.

Mamo complained you were always getting into trouble. What kind of trouble are you in, Áine?”

“Why do you call me Anya?”

“Goddess of love.”

“Oh, nice.”

“Be careful. She doubles as goddess of fertility. But, the trouble, Áine, what trouble?”

“Mama thinks we’re in trouble if I drive a mile over the speed limit. If we were in trouble, where better to avoid it than at Rathmullan. It’s like coming home.”

“You didn’t tell me you knew Donegal. Did you need Nora and me at all? I thought I was chasing you. Maybe, its you chasing me. You’re not a Brit, are you? Let’s go for a walk.”

“If I walk anywhere, it will be upstairs to bed.”

“Do you want to take me with you?”

“What I want is to know more about the Burkes. You don’t meet couples like the Burkes in the States. Dignified. Modest. Gentle. There are no gentle people in the United States. None. Trust me. None. Nada. We’re an aggressive nation. Pioneers and settlers. A prickly bunch.”

“Burke’s brother was a judge. Took his pleasure heaving the lads into Maze prison. There were no apologies when that bomb went off.”

“That’s all right with you? Murdering a judge?”

“We fought the Brits for a thousand years. We’ll fight them for a thousand more if that’s what it takes.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Burke? Not much of a contest.”

“They’re decent enough. He’s retired from Queens, pledged to the Empire. What are they doing in Ireland anyway? They should go home. They’d be happy. We’d be happy.”

“You said Portaferry is their home.”

“They’re Brits. They came by the sea. They can go by the sea. You Scots rowed right along with them. You might find some Hutchesons up North. You ought to take a look.”

“I think the Larkins came from Cork.”

“I don’t know any Cork Larkins. Who’s Larkin anyway? Your husband?”

“My grandmother was a Larkin. Mary Larkin.”

“Did she have red hair? There’s a Conamara song, ‘Keep your hands off red-haired Mary.’ Máire Rua. Red-haired Mary. That’s my boat.”

“I remember Father Dan defending her to Nora. Máire Rua. Pretty. Will you teach me Irish?”

“You can’t learn it. You have to be born with it. It’s beautiful, the pure Irish. The Dubs think they know it, but they’re only messing. Schoolmasters get hold of kids, they come home talking nonsense. I’ll take you to the islands. Bofin. Mace. The old people speak the Irish. If you drink enough poteen, you’ll think you know what they’re saying.”

“Will we sail to Bofin on the Máire Rua? Is she a fishing trawler?”

“She’s a Hooker. A sailing ship. Timber hull. Caulked and tarred. Gaff rigged. The Clogherty’s built her on Bofin in 1910. She was rotting when I got her. She spent the winter on the Irish Sea. Time to bring her around.”

Curled on the sofa, heavy-eyed, hair disheveled, SueAnne studied Micheál, an Irish-speaking Catholic strangely at ease in this Protestant house. Tone, he called Anthony Cuffe. Familiar. Affectionate. And, I’m Anya.

A fresh onslaught of rain battered the windows, the wind circling, shrieked, a shattering of trees rent the air. Shadows staggered. Past tossing rhododendrons and dancing tea roses, the grassy slope merged into nothingness. In a dim distance, skeletal plumes fought Loch Swilly.

“I better make a move. The storm is picking up. Listen to those trees. I’m thinking we have a hurricane on our hands.”

“You’re not staying here.”

“I’ll bed with the lads in town. You’ll walk me to the car? You won’t.” He probed and measured her. “Then, I must find my own way.”

“Will you be back in the morning?”

“God willing, I’ll be half way to Dublin by the time your feet touch the floor, Áine. Come to Ard. I’ll take you for a spin on the Máire Rua, make an Irishwoman of you.”

Continued on Pages, Sunday, March 18, 2012

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