Short Stories from Loose Leaves (part 1)

Short Stories

  1. Coal-Dark – By Hubert Brady
  2. A Foul Moment – By Deirdre Houlihan
  3. An Uninvited Visitor – By Margot Gearty
  4. A Bump in the Night – By Isla Forster Duffy
  5. Confession –  By Joy Burns
  6. The Old White House – By Anne Gallagher
  7. A Desire for Romance – By Ann Noone
  8. Larry’s Proposition – By Hannah Masterson
  9. Tooth Appeal – By Valerie Masters
  10. The Porcelain Urn – By Marie Noone
  11. Too Old – No Never – By Breege Caldwell
  12. Heather’s Garden – By Hannah Masterson
  13. Invisible Scars – By Rose Byrne
  14. Nothing Personal – By Lorne Patterson
  15. Company – By Adrian F. Duncan
  16. A Return Ticket – By M.V. Horan
  17. The Bearer of Light – By Breda Sullivan
  18. The Old Morris Van – By Jimmy Keary
  19. A Meeting of Minds – By Aine Reilly

Coal-dark.

By Hubert Brady

Johnny Donnelly stumbled as he climbed up the path on to the Railway line, it was a short cut home.  It was Saturday night and Johnny often had a drink after he did the shopping.  The night was bright, frosty, moonlit, without a breeze. The star-studded sky heralded a continuation of the frost and possibly snow. It was bitterly cold.

Pulling his coat tightly around him Johnny hurried along the track. He knew he should not walk on the railway but it brought him near to the path that led to his house. As he passed by the station, he kept an eye out for the stationmaster who, more than once, had reprimanded him for walking on the line. No one saw him so he hurried on. He was almost home when he noticed something glinting in the moonlight. Bending down he picked up a large lump of shining coal and putting it under his arm, he trudged along. It wasn’t unusual to find coal scattered on the railway line, having fallen from the coal truck attached to the steam engine, but a lump this size was very unusual.

Johnny lived with his wife Rosie on the bog road in a small thatched house, tucked under a clump of trees.  The house was kept spick and span, and the adjoining garden, which was enclosed by whitewashed pailing, kept them in vegetables.

Johnny and Rosie had one son who had joined the army like so many others did at that time. He went to fight in the Great War. He fought in the Battle of the Somme and was eventually reported missing, but Johnny and Rosie always prayed that he would return someday. In their loneliness they lived quietly.

“What have you there?” enquired Rosie looking up from her knitting as Johnny entered the house and put the lump of coal on the hob.

“We’ll burn that some cold night,” Johnny told her as he sat close to the fire.

Winter was a quiet time for Johnny. He got odd days work from the neighbours, but money was scarce and sometimes he got it very difficult to manage. He was all right for the coming week as Jim, his neighbour was starting to clean a drain in the lower field. It would take a week to complete.

Sunday night was card-game night and the locals crowded into the thatched house at around eight o’clock.  Johnny and Rosie loved cards and looked forward to the Sunday game.

All the following week Johnny left the house early and came home late. On Saturday evening he came home delighted with himself as he handed Rosie his wages.

“We’ll hit town tonight,” he told her. Smiling in anticipation Rosie prepared the evening meal.

With the coming of Spring, work became more plentiful. Johnny worked everyday and life improved. Winter came and went.  The years passed and still no word from their son. With the onset of the cold winter nights Johnny always sat at the hob smoking his pipe, sometimes smiling to himself as he viewed his lump of coal.

Some cold night, he told himself, that will make a great fire.

The winter of nineteen eighteen was one of the worst, compounded by the worst flu in living memory, leaving many of Johnny’s able-bodied neighbours victim to its ravages.  As his neighbours became ill Johnny found himself helping many of them out. This brought in a little money.

Coming home one evening, weary and tired, he found Rosie sitting by the fire staring into the flames. Ignoring his salutations she stared straight ahead.

“We have finished the job,” he told her. “Rosie, I said we’ve finished the job.”

Still no response.

“Are you all right, love?”

As he took off his coat Johnny noticed an envelope in the window. Picking it up and with a trembling hand he drew out the page. His heart pounding as his eye caught the dreaded words, The War Office, London, dated, Nineteen Eighteen.  We regret to inform you that Pte. John Donnelly was killed in action on…

Johnny read no more.  He slumped into a chair. No words were spoken.

Towards midnight Rosie slipped quietly off to bed. Near morning she woke from a troubled sleep and realised Johnny was not in bed.

“Johnny,” she whispered anxiously as she opened the door to the kitchen.

“Johnny.”

Johnny was slumped in the chair; the letter still clutched in his now lifeless hand. His heart gave up, unable to bear the shock.

Johnny was laid out and waked in the kitchen on the coldest Sunday night in memory.  The neighbours came quietly to pay their respects.  They stood around silently in the dim light of the flickering candles that surrounded Johnny’s bed, while the lump of coal he’d found on the railway line burned brightly on the hearth, casting eerie shadows across his pallid countenance.

A Foul Moment

By Deirdre Houlihan
The sun beamed down on the colourful crowd gathered on the Mombasa railway station.  White turbaned Sikhs chatted easily with their Asian friends. Kikuyu women dressed in vibrant colours jostled good-naturedly for position with their brown Kamba sisters. Fathers bringing their wages to their families stood relaxed, eagerly anticipating a few days with their loved ones. Some had already translated the cash into food products and goods, which they carried on their heads or backs.  Many young people dressed in the trendiest styles chatted animatedly with old friends from the bush, all taking money home to parents and extended family.  Little children clung closely to their mothers afraid of being swept away in the bustling tide of people. A group of Maasai stood apart looking somehow out of place far from their cattle and the plains. The traditional Maasai red shukas hung casually from their skinny bodies as they stood stork-like, the weight of their heavy wooden earrings dragging their earlobes close to their shoulders.  Any local, not using a calendar, would know instinctively, it was the end of the month by the size of the crowd.

Amidst the entire group and creating something of a distraction were two Europeans.  One was my friend and the other was me.  Whites or wazunga as we were generally described, used their Range Rovers and African drivers to get about, so we were a rare spectacle. Children peeped shyly at us from the safety of their mother’s skirts.  Adults though deferential seemed more at ease away from us.  There was barely standing room on the platform but that did not affect the mood of the crowd, which was jovial and noisy.

When the train doors opened there would be an almighty surge forward and a scramble for seats. Having booked a compartment in advance my friend and I hung back letting the crowd thin out. Amazingly when we found our compartment we not only found our names on the glass panel of the door but we were the sole occupants. This was luxury indeed.  We released the bunk beds from the walls, climbed up and stretched out. The subtle scents of the Orient wafted in through the open window encouraged by a delicate breeze from the Indian Ocean.

I was heading to Nairobi.  My friend Theresa, who was nursing in a mission hospital thirty miles or so into the bush, was leaving the train about mid journey at Voi.

Darkness falls quickly in Kenya and in spite of my struggle to stay awake I felt drowsiness nudging me into sleep.

“Wake me before Voi,” I muttered to Theresa before dropping off and dreaming of walking again the beautiful white sands of Shelly beach.  The warm ocean was sensually licking my feet, when I was vigorously assaulted.  My eyes shot open. Theresa stood shaking my bunk.

“We’re very close to Voi” she whispered.

Somewhat befuddled I asked, “What’s with the whispering?”

“Shush,” she cautioned me and with a sweep of her arm showed me we were no longer alone. Nine or ten women with babies were strewn about the seats and floor in various sleeping positions, headscarves pulled over their faces and babies tucked into their breasts. An acidic air permeated the place, which I later realised came from the puddles the charming infants had created on the floor!

And now I felt a strong pull of nature myself. How do I leave my perch and navigate the pools I pondered.

“Lean on my shoulder,” Teresa offered, as though reading my thoughts.  “And get your legs down between those two ladies on the seat.”

Still a bit woozy I swung around, but instead of getting my foot between the ladies, I slapped one of them right in the face. She came awake with a start and began to apologise profusely. This confused me totally since I was the one who should have been apologising. Her baby, shaken by the mother’s fright began to scream, and in seconds there was a full-throated orchestra filling the compartment. Now everybody was awake. Theresa was swaying with the effort to hold in her laughter and I decided to make a quick exit regardless of the terrain.  It was night and lighting was at a minimum. I stumbled along thumping myself against doors and walls as the train tore into the night with abandon. Not very far along I located the loo. The door was stiff but yielded grudgingly. A most unforgiving odour hit my nostrils and instinctively I pulled back quickly. The filthiest, vitreous bowl in Christendom stood about a foot high in the closet and it was obvious the users had given scant support to the slogan We aim to please. Please to aim.

Hurriedly I pulled closed the door and clawed my way along the corridor to the next carriage. I had an idea now where the toilet would be located and I was right. But it was worse than the first and you wouldn’t have thought that possible. Another corridor was out of the question and so with exquisite care I tiptoed onto the least filthy areas. I turned and slid home the bolt. Hating to breathe the foul air I concluded my business quickly. Still holding my breath I reached to open the door. But the latch wouldn’t budge.  It wouldn’t budge. I pushed harder.

Nothing.

Was I going to spend the next six hours in this hellhole? My heart started to race. My hands were clammy. A little nerve that always goes off when I’m stressed began to hammer at the side of my head. A rusty wire hung from the latch and I pleaded with it as I tugged on it desperate to open the blasted lock. It wouldn’t move. Now my fingers were bleeding. What was to be done? The window? But it was tiny and smoke blackened. No time for niceties. It was a window. With manic force I pushed it open a few reluctant inches. Outside there was a faint moving light. As my eyes adjusted I saw it was attached to a male form.  A railway guard walked nonchalantly along the track swinging his kerosene lamp offering light to people as they disembarked which in the absence of a platform they did by jumping on to the track.  The train has stopped I thought.

“Help,” I shouted. “Please help.”

The railway guard slowed to a halt, looked around and continued down the track. He was beginning to disappear from view. With lungs on full tilt I shouted louder. He turned and followed my hysterical roars.

“I’m locked in the toilet,” I pleaded as he came alongside the window.

I doubt he spoke English but he knew I wasn’t looking for a timetable.  He waved back acknowledgement of my predicament.

“Aai yaa,” he called and I breathed again. Minutes passed.  I heard footsteps running. Theresa called,

“Are you in there Margaret?” and the door was pushed in.

Tears of frustration and relief coursed down my cheeks. I fell into her arms and hugged her.

“How did you do it?”

I asked relief racing through every pore.

“Do what?” she asked laughing.

Those doors don’t lock but they can be stiff.

“You mean I wasn’t locked in.”

“Nope,” Theresa laughed.  “Never mind, you’re out now.”

“Yes, but, I tugged and pulled….”

It didn’t matter, Theresa was right, I was out of the noxious lavatory.  Smiling I followed her back to the baby soaked cabin.

An Uninvited Visitor

By Margot Gearty

My two sisters, my brother and my myriad cousins could not escape knowing, as we grew up in Granard, that the house in which we lived was in some way historic. Framed portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith looked down on us as we ate our meals in the coffee-room of the hotel, which was our home. Countess Markievicz had stayed there we were told, and my four aunts had who had lived here in their youth had been wooed by some of the nations heroes. We found all this mildly embarrassing at the time I speak of, which was the late nineteen forties, when we were all in our teens and with little sense of history.

We did know though that a great tragedy had occurred in the hotel on Hallowe’en, nineteen twenty, when a young District Inspector from Cork had been shot dead in the bar in the presence of my father. As a reprisal, lorry loads of Black-and-Tans descended on Granard a few evenings later and burned down many buildings in the town, especially those belonging to our family. No wonder my father rarely spoke of those sad times.

Of much greater interest to us young people was the fact that when this fine building in which we lived was rebuilt in nineteen twenty-two, no account was taken of modern advances in plumbing. We were therefore left with no mod-cons such as hot-and-cold running water in the bedrooms and a distinct shortage of bathrooms. This meant that in each of the eight guest bedrooms there was a marble stand on which reposed a flowery delph ewer and basin for washing, a carafe of cold water for drinking and a ceramic chamber pot, which was stored in its own locker. It was our task to clean the chamber pots during the school holidays, when we were called upon to ‘pull our weight.’ Another early morning task was the delivery of a can of hot water to the door of each bedroom, accompanied by loudly calling out the time as requested.

Despite all these inconveniences however, my mother breathed a new atmosphere into the place when she married my father in nineteen twenty-three. She gardened extensively up the back, with help from the yardman Frank Kelly who had a natural flair for gardening, and between them they got an old grass tennis court back in use. They grew all the vegetables for the hotel and we spent many summers podding peas and beans in the sunshine, picking fruit for jam, and helping in our shop next door. Peter Dale, the carpenter who worked in the timber-yard making coffins, built a summerhouse out of two old out-of-date carriages and a greenhouse to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in.  In the evenings my mother organised music and card games and a welcome for all. Most of the commercial travellers became part of the family, despite the fact that an order in the shop was conditional on staying in the Hotel for their night in Granard.

When Anew McMaster and other travelling players came to town my mother would give them rooms for half nothing, while my father turned a disapproving blind eye. Padraic Colum came on visits with his wife Mary and talked poetry and literature.  Maire ni Scolai, the famous traditional singer and collector of folk songs, came to sing in the town hall next door and became another friend. At Christmas, my sisters had parties in the Commercial Room, with fairy lights and Charlie Dunne from Longford playing the piano for the dance. It certainly was a magical place to live in, but there was always the unspoken understanding that we family members worked as hard as anyone else both in shop and hotel.  Many’s the Fair Day we served, scrubbed and washed dishes in washing soda and hot water until our hands were red and raw.

Every day on the dot of noon, my father would leave the shop by the back door, and slip down to the kitchen of the hotel where he would survey the joint of the day.  He would cut the most succulent piece he could see, sample it carefully, then report to my mother on his findings and of how many he thought there might be for lunch that day. On this particular summer’s day in nineteen forty-seven, as he chewed his lovely rare piece of roast beef, he pronounced a quite busy day ahead. Many commercial travellers had already been into the shop for their orders that morning, and he had noticed a lot of Northern hikers going through to the West on their bikes, as it was near ‘the twelfth.’

“There might even be a few Americans around,” he said and off with him up the yard to check out some order for timber, iron or coal.

At one o’clock precisely, he was back at the head of the very large oblong mahogany table in the Commercial Room where he presided over a communal lunch. There was no menu in our hotel, just home-made soup, a different joint each day, with fish on Friday of course, vegetables from the garden, followed by jelly and custard, with Irel coffee and two Marietta biscuits to finish. The talk around the table was general, of trade and the bad times that were in it. People were polite to the Northern hikers who just wanted to eat and get back to their bikes. This day there was indeed an American couple who earnestly discussed their forbears and how they might find their roots. Sitting on his own was an insignificant looking man of about forty, wearing a pinstripe suit, the breast pocket of which held many pens and pencils.

In the kitchen behind the hatch, my mother carved on with fortitude, while Nelly Sheddock the cook, flushed from standing over the large Aga cooker this hot day, dished out the vegetables and potatoes in the little divided silver plated dishes. I fetched and carried. Biddy Mahon, the spirited and humorous waitress in starched white apron and flyaway cap, saved us from the boredom of the kitchen by regaling us with all that went on in the dining room. Today, she could report that, ‘The Boss’ could identify the Americans’ place of origin, and had put them in touch with Canon O’Kane.  The pinstripe man, she reported, had spoken to nobody but had taken it all in and had eaten everything, while Mr. Lindsay from Shackleton’s Flourmills had booked number three for the night. As the money was paid, I entered it all in a book, ‘two chances’ at three shillings each for the Americans and others. The commercials got a reduced rate of half a crown.

After the lunches were over, my mother usually retired upstairs to the sitting room with a cup of tea, where she smoked two cigarettes and played a game of double patience.  This was her only rest in a long day and was regarded as sacrosanct. On this occasion however, Biddy came up to tell her that the unidentified man wished to see her. He had taken the unprecedented step of coming into the kitchen and demanded to see ‘the Mistress.’  My mother hesitated, finished her cigarette and finally decided to see the person in the hall.

“I am from the Irish Tourist Board,” he announced officiously.  “A new body set up by the Government and I’m authorised to examine your premises to decide if it reaches the standard to be called a hotel and if so, which grading, if any, it would deserve.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen door we were outraged.  I fled to my father in the shop to tell him to get rid of this invader, but he said,

“No.  It’s a sign of the times.  Your mother will deal with it.”

And so she valiantly did as we brought up the rear. Every nook and cranny of our precious family hotel was exposed.

“Far more family than hotel,” my father used to complain with a twinkle in his eye.

“No separate family quarters?” asked the enemy as he observed our occupancy of several of the bedrooms.

“No hot and cold water!” he gasped. “And only one proper bathroom in the whole building.”

We reached the top landing and groaned when he made for Ramona. This was our own special, family walk-in cupboard, where a lifetime-of-treasures was stored. My mother’s long, luxuriant black plaits from her schooldays, the clothes and shoes sent from American relations, a Spanish shawl from an aunt’s trip abroad, out-of-date dress-suits and ball gowns hung amidst our old school books and music, a discarded ukulele and years of National Geographic magazines. Above all, our parents love letters had been recently discovered tied up with blue ribbon. This Aladdin’s Cave was truly a refuge on many’s the rainy day and the source of much of our dressing-up. The spy announced it would make an ideal and much needed lavatory on this level. We cringed – our Ramona.

The inspector was at last back downstairs and was looking for the Hotel Lounge. My mother offered him a glass of sherry, which he rejected, in the coffee room, which was really our family room but now pretending it was strictly for guests.  “With changes to the existing accommodation you may make it to Grade C,” the inspector said, “but you’ll require a fire escape of course. The Board will be in touch,” was his parting shot.

We never did manage to get a fire escape but somehow we held on to our hotel status and Ramona remained our very own secret place, but our five star home became a Grade C hotel from that time onwards.

A Bump in the Night

By Isla Forster Duffy

It seems like a cold morning. I can’t be sure. The brightness is just starting to break through the withered briars in the ditch. Above me, misty water droplets cling to spider webs and the last of the autumn leaves. There’s a plane heading west in the sky. I shiver. I should have brought my coat, on the other hand, I hadn’t expected to spend the night unconscious in my car, at the side of the road to Knockmore.

Charlie had called late last night.

“Just meet me in Coffey’s,” he’d said.

Something in his voice told me I wasn’t going to enjoy the meeting.  I grabbed the car keys, reversed swiftly out of the drive and set off for town.

It’s getting brighter. The sun glints off a large crack in the windscreen. I peer at my face in the rear view mirror. I put my hands to my head. Ouch. It seems to have been flattened by lying against the window all night. I look down at the rest of my body. Right leg, check, left leg, check. Hands look pretty ok.  No obvious blood or serious injuries.  I think I could get out. I stay in the seat, somehow unable to bring myself to move.

I’d parked the car outside Coffey’s and walked in the door.  Charlie was in the usual corner by the fireplace.  By the looks of him, he’d probably been there a good while. There was a practically empty cigarette box on the counter, nothing out of the ordinary there. I noticed a hold-all on the floor by his stool. He looked scruffy, unshaven, defeated. He looked me straight in the eye. I found this a little unnerving.

“Lizzie, we need to talk,” he said simply.

I pulled up a stool and sat down at the bar.

The dashboard is very dusty in this car. I never noticed that before. There are several spent air fresheners dangling from the rear view mirror. I’m thirsty. I look around for a half-empty drink bottle of some sort. I spot a bottle of Mega Energy Juice Boost in the door. It’s been there a while and it tastes a little funny. I grimace and swallow. As I put it down on the passenger seat, I notice the envelope under a couple of newspapers. I pull it out and look inside. Two tickets to the most romantic resort in Barbados. Numbly, I cast them aside again.

I’d known Charlie would call eventually. He always called after a fight. Usually the next day. I wasn’t worried. We fought fairly often. It was usually about who’d eaten all the red ones in the bag of jelly babies or not remembered to buy the TV guide on a Saturday. It had been a whole week this time. This was a really big fight. A real deal breaker.  I’d thrown the ring at him in a fit of rage about moving to America. I looked over at him and tried to see the man I’d fallen in love with three years ago. But that man wasn’t sitting in front of me. He was only in my memories.

I turn on the radio. The news headlines don’t involve a large search party for Lizzie from Knockmore who hasn’t been seen since leaving Coffey’s pub late last night. I’m a little disappointed. Somebody should care that I’m out here in the freezing cold by myself. I should care. But I don’t. It’s just another thing that went wrong for me.

“I’m going back to New York,” Charlie said. “Alone. Tonight. I’m getting a taxi to the airport in a few minutes. There’s a job in Manhattan starting Monday. I can’t wait here forever for you to say you’ll come with me.”

“What about the wedding?” I whimpered. “Our plans?”

“Its over,” he said.

He turned away to pick up the flat pint of beer and drained it.

I look down at the naked third finger on my left hand. I thought I had wanted to move to New York with him. It had been such a whirlwind when we met, backpacking in Rio. He was on a year out, before going to join the family firm in New York, and I was having a well-deserved holiday after finishing college. Somehow we got talking in an Irish bar about visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. After three days we were inseparable, and when we returned home, we visited each other whenever possible. We’d became engaged last Christmas on a horse drawn carriage in Central Park. The wedding was to be at St. Anne’s in Knockmore and I’d move over to the States shortly after.

“Lizzie,” Charlie said as he got off the stool and picked up his bag. “If you really wanted to come to New York with me, you’d have given notice on your job and be packing your things by now.”

I couldn’t argue.

He was right.

The morning mist seems to be enveloping the car. Perhaps I’d been in love with the idea of moving to the Big Apple and starting a new life.  Seems I was pretty happy with the one I had here all along. What would I do now? Start again?  Not much else for it.  I reach for the car door, and pull the handle. The cool morning air rushes in around me. I unbuckle the seat belt and ease myself off the seat.

I watched Charlie walk out the door of the pub. I realised I didn’t want to go after him. I sat down on a stool and stared blindly ahead. After what seemed like a lifetime, I stood up and walked out myself.

He was long gone.

Driving down the road from the pub, I started to cry. I saw a rabbit in the middle of the road through my tear filled eyes. I braked hard to avoid hitting it. I forgot to apply the clutch. The car conked. I was on the side of the road. And I couldn’t move. I suppose I fell asleep eventually.

Standing up in the fresh dawn mist, a sea of black and white cows is trudging towards me. I struggle to think whose they might be. I see Mike Ryan at the back of the herd. I stand there sheepishly.

“What are you doing out here at this hour of the morning? Did you want to give me a hand with the cows?”

Then he sees the car.

“C’mon,” Mike says, “you can get some tea up at the house with herself. You can get the car later.”

So I walk up the road with Mike, nudging the odd slow-coach cow as we go along.  I look back at the car. There isn’t a scratch on it. Truth be told, I think the crack in the windscreen had been there before I crashed.

“Are you feeling alright, Lizzie? Is there somewhere you should be.” Mike asks noticing my wistful gaze.

I look around and smell the warm steaming cows and the crisp autumn morning.

“I’m grand, Mike,” I reply.  “I’m exactly where I should be.”

Confession

By Joy Burns

She was a Catholic.  I was not.  I was told this on the day of her First Communion.  It was the first time in many months of friendship with Gabrielle that I became aware of any difference.   I had accepted without question that we attended different schools, after all there were many schools in Limerick and other children I knew went to different schools.  I was amazed to see Gabrielle dressed in a beautiful white dress, veil, white socks and shoes, even gloves and a dainty gorgeous handbag.  Her ringlets were especially nice that day.

There was quite a commotion next door with relations and visitors coming and going.  My mother remarked how well Gabrielle looked and gave her a gift, some money and a card.  I couldn’t see the amount, but it was definitely silver.  I was jealous.  Why should Gabrielle get all this attention and money, when I got nothing.  Why couldn’t I be a Catholic?

Time passed and my friendship with Gabrielle grew.  We were soon old enough to be allowed to do small messages and go for walks together around the North Circular Road.  I had become curious about Gabrielle’s church, which was on the Ennis Road.  Even the name was mysterious, The Church of the Holy Rosary.  What did Rosary mean, I wondered?

The rear entrance of the church could be reached from a side road just off the North Circular Road.  This road was supposed to be off limits, however, one day I persuaded Gabrielle that I wanted to see the church, so we ventured up the road and slipped in the back gate, making sure that nobody saw us.  I got cold feet as we arrived at the large wooden door, which was firmly shut.  Gabrielle turned the handle slowly and pushed the door open.  I peeped inside and was overcome with awe.  There were so many statues and an overpowering scent, which made me feel slightly sick.  That was enough.  I was both satisfied and terrified that we would be caught. We took to our heels and ran the whole way home.  I doubt if either of us our told our parents. I certainly didn’t.

Another day, Gabrielle had to deliver a message to the parish priest or maybe it was the curate of the same church.  He was a kindly man and patted us on the head.  Leaving his house we decided to take a short cut through the garden and orchard.  It was autumn and the apple trees were loaded.  Of course we couldn’t resist picking some of what seemed like nice ripe specimens.  Hastily shoving a few up our jumpers we scuttled out the side gate and headed home.  However, when we tasted the apples, we quickly realised they were a cooking variety and had to throw them away in some undergrowth.

After more than half a century I still carry a touch of guilt when I think back on these incidents.

The Old White House

By Anne Gallagher

The grass hadn’t been cut for weeks around the old white house.  The former gardener had finally accepted his unemployed status and no longer tended the lawns and flowers.  The maids, servants and butlers had long left their quarters and rested quietly in their own homes.

I raced over the fields, jumping thickets and hedges to reach the old house singing Gaelic ballads as I ran. Crows and magpies soared from the trees at the sound of my voice.  A wild-eyed rabbit hopped across the hilly field and dashed into a narrow burrow.  The Hereford cattle raised their heads, giving me a fleeting glance.  Tufts of grass fell from their mouth, showing the green colour on their tongues.

The old white house was empty now.  Many years ago, a wealthy family lived there, served by their varied servants and their faithful gardener.  At that time in Ireland, around the early forties, they were known as the landed gentry, owners of fine horses and cattle and terrier dogs. I walked up the driveway of the abandoned house.  Creeping ivy wound its way up the side walls to the eve gutters.  Chestnuts tumbled to the ground when a gust of wind blew through the surrounding trees.  There were wild roses and marigolds still blooming after all these years.  The weeds grew high along the garden wall, including the dandelion.  Its name derived from the French, my mother explained, meaning the lion’s tooth – dandelion.  The pebble-dashed walls of the house raised two storeys high to the grey slated roof, now showing little mounds of green moss along the edges.

I peeped in the French windows at the back of the house.  There she was.  A gold-framed picture of the young girl, she was only four years older than I was.  Her hair was dark and curly with red hues through it.  Her blue velvet dress had a white band around the waist.  She sat gracefully, almost like a queen, as if she had been trained to sit perfectly still for a portrait.  Her family had left for England long ago, sadly leaving her behind.  Some of her family worked as footmen or stablemen for the Queen at Buckingham Palace.  Now they had become servants and the city of London was a far cry from the green fields surrounding their old house.

The girl’s name was Heather and her beauty was known far and wide, the locals said.  Heather’s parents wanted her to marry a gentleman befitting her own class.  They longed to give her hand in marriage to the rich, gentleman farmer from Bellingham House in the next parish, but it was not to be.   Heather didn’t like the gentleman farmer, she thought he was too stern and didn’t like his long aquiline nose or his weasel-ly face.

Everything changed when one day when Heather was down to the kitchen chatting to the cook.  A rap came to the door.  Standing there was a tall, dark man in shredded pants.  He begged for bread.  The servants tired to get rid of him.  Heather stepped in, told the servants to go about their chores and invited the beggar man in.  She gave him a brown loaf with a jar of raspberry jam.  The beggar man’s angular face softened and his blue eyes shone like a child’s with delight.

“For shame!” hissed one of the maids.  “He’s a gypsy.  A traveller on the roads of Ireland.”

Heather smiled as the traveller’s long legs mounted the horse and he trotted off down the avenue to join his clan in the old caravan.  The rest of his kin were camping on the side road one mile away.  All the clan had were a few goats tethered near the shin bushes and two horses that nibbled the grass on the side of the ditch.

A week later the traveller returned and begged again.  His handsome face bronzed from the sun and a sprinkling of dampness in his hair from a drizzle of rain.  Again, Heather’s benevolent ways won out and she filled his bag with food.  When the traveller called a third time, the young butler spotted her walk down the avenue with him, the two in deep conversation.

Her parents were soon informed of her strange interest in the travelling man. Her father berated her sternly, commanding her to marry the farmer immediately.  Undaunted, Heather rebelled by secretly meeting the traveller instead.  She was besotted with him.  The local people spoke of it many times around the turf fires and word got out.  Her mother cried tears of anguish, unable to comprehend her daughter’s love affair.  Her father threatened to disown her, to leave her penniless.

One winter’s night, as the moon cast light over a still house, Heather and her gypsy stole away.  All trace of them was gone the following morning, except for a few dying embers on the roadside where the gypsy camp had been.

The story went that Heather carried about a hundred pounds in a black silken purse and a bag of warm clothing.  She and the gypsy clan travelled throughout the local counties.  They often had plenty of food to eat because of the extra cash, but her money quickly disappeared when another band of travellers stole it and left her with a mere few shillings.  She and her husband and his family moved on again begging their way through the winter.  She was glad when spring days came, leaving behind the chill winter air.  The pretty crocus peeping along the ditches was a heavenly sight to her eyes.

Soon Heather became the mother of a little girl, who looked just like her dark-haired father.  The passage of time and tiredness of travel soon began to show on Heather’s face.  Her husband’s family showed a certain disdain towards her.  The lack of monetary funds rendered Heather unpopular among her adopted family, and it wasn’t long her husband left her for a red-haired gypsy woman.  His family preferred his new woman, much more than his once rich wife.

Broken-hearted Heather and her three-year-old child returned to her parents in search of shelter and warmth, but found another family now occupied the house.  The only remaining employee known to her was the faithful gardener, who wished to stay and tend to his duties, regardless of his former employers’ departure.  He sadly informed her that her family never wanted to see her again.  They had gone on to England.

For months Heather stayed with gardener’s family.   But then she set out on the roads again, taking her little girl with her.  Some say she appeared dishevelled and downcast.  The scent of burnt wood lingered about her clothing.  Although rosy-cheeked, her child appeared ill-nourished.  For many years, the local people spoke of her plight, saying that she had gone on to join a band of travelling people in the west of Ireland and was never since heard of.

I wandered down the garden path and caught a heavy branch, swinging myself onto the apple tree.  I shook it like a rag doll and the apples fell to the ground.  Then on to the pear tree, I beat the fruit down with a stick, leaving my empty flour bag on the ground ready to fill it and hoist it home on my back.

I saw a little hedgehog peep up at me as I went towards the old pond at the garden’s edge.  Touching him with the tip of a stick he curled up and warned me with his prickly back.  A little robin hopped from branch to branch on a laurel tree.  At the very end of the garden, there was a pet cemetery.

Here lies my dearest Fifi,

faithful friend and beloved companion,

and her brother, little Cecil, always in our hearts.

The grey headstone had just a little moss on the sides and a greenish line ran down the front caused by droplets of rain dribbling down from the willow branch.  On the way back, I peeped in the big side window and saw the old fireplace surrounded by marble.  A dusting of ashes sat in the hearth, the only remains of a once warm fire.  An old ladder reached all the way up to the attic.  Wonder what was up there?  Old costumes and feathered hats maybe?  Perhaps the ghosts of yesteryear.  Some said that the old Brigadier General, former owner, wandered the halls at night and sang war songs and read volumes of folklore by candlelight.  Others say the Heather’s mother traipsed the halls, crying aloud, mourning the loss of her dear child and contemplating the whereabouts of her grandchild.

The lengthening shadows of evening began to fall.  As I raced back through the fields, the cattle jumped out of my way, their hind legs kicking in the air.  In a few short years the Department of Land Commission levelled the old white house to the ground and divided the surrounding land among the local farmers.  A family from another parish came to the area and built a modern bungalow where the house used to be. The old white house days were gone forever, as was any sign of the beautiful girl Heather and her young child.

A Desire for Romance

By Ann Noone

Working the knot of his tie up to meet the collar of his new shirt, John Kelly squared himself up to the mirror.   Taking a step back he had a good look at himself.

“Not bad, not bad at all,” he reassured the reflection before him.

Every Sunday morning for twenty years the same ritual was repeated. The cows were milked at exactly seven am, sheds cleaned out and the sow moved to her big pen.  Following the death of his parents, John, an only son, inherited the farm on which he lived.  Although he led a busy life, it could often be lonely too with just his dog Molly for company.

Today though, was the day John was going to change all that.   He’d have a word with Mickey The Limp Murphy after eleven o’clock mass to see if anything could be arranged.  Removing the numerous pieces of Friday’s Irish Independent from his face he examined the damage and satisfied with the result he was ready for off.  All John could think about for the duration of the Mass was how he would broach the subject with Mickey.   After all, he was completely inexperienced in these matters, never having been any closer to a woman other than that of Mrs Gavigan in the Post Office when she’d lean across the counter to admire Molly.

“Go forth in Peace,” announced the priest.   Suddenly realising that Mass had ended John made his way out, stopping by the holy water font.

Well, this is it, he thought.  Realising he was about to put his future into the hands of Mickey The Limp, he blessed himself repeatedly.   Various groups of people had already gathered outside the church when John emerged.   In order not to attract any attention to himself, John strolled over to wait by his bicycle until he could see that Mickey was free to talk.   As he waited he reached into his pocket for a cigarette and lit up the last woodbine in the box.   Mickey The Limp was a popular man in the parish.  He was an authority on every subject and everyone had great regard for him in return.    Ever since his accident in the bog as a young fellow, which earned him his nickname, Mickey turned his hand to a bit of matchmaking like his father before him.  Over the years, his success and his reputation grew to such an extent that people from all over the country came to seek his advice.   Today, it was John Kelly’s turn.   In the glorious sunshine, John’s nerves were beginning to show and he began to pace up and down.   From a distance Mickey spotted John and instantly knew by his demeanour that there was something important on his mind.  The two men acknowledged each other with a nod and without delay Mickey bid goodbye to the group and headed over in John’s direction.   There was a lot of coughing, spitting and shifting of feet before conversation began.   John usually wasn’t lost for words, in fact, he joined in with the many discussions in McKeown’s pub on a Saturday night.   However, right at the part where the words he had rehearsed in his head should have come out, his voice failed him.  Mickey on the other hand, not lost for words and sensing John’s unease came straight to the point.

“ You’re looking for a woman, John?”

John, responded only with a nod, his confidence of the morning now having turned to embarrassment.

“Say no more,” Mickey said, “leave it to me.”

A relieved John threw his leg over the bar of his bike and headed for home.   Not at all sure now, that he had done the right thing, John began to question himself.  Now what would I be doing, a man of my age with a woman, won’t the neighbours have a right laugh at me?

Upon his arrival home he put the matter completely out of his head and set about his work.  Two weeks later, John answered a knock on his door only to find Mickey standing proudly on the step with a red book in his hand.   John invited him into the kitchen and offered him tea.

“No thanks, John, I just called in to let you know that the matter we discussed recently is in hand,” announced Mickey.  “I’ll call around again with the time and place.”

Mickey was gone before John could open his mouth. Another couple of weeks passed until finally the appointed date arrived.   A very nervous but smartly dressed John waited in the lounge of Hughes’ Hotel with a drop of scotch whiskey for courage.  He decided it was better to be there before the due time so that his nerves could settle down a bit first.  Just as he was about to order another drink, Mickey appeared around the door with an elegantly dressed woman.

“John, this is Rita Daly,” Mickey the limp smiled.  “Rita, John.”

With the scotch now coursing through John’s veins, he stepped forward to greet them both.   Mickey, slightly taken aback by John’s new found confidence and charm, suddenly felt that his part so far in the match was done.   Leaving them both to become more acquainted with each other Mickey The Limp excused himself and left.   As soon as Mickey was out of sight John didn’t hesitate in taking control.   With his hand on her arm he gestured over to the table by the window where the seating was more comfortable.   While doing so, John, didn’t fail to notice how elegantly dressed she was in a hound’s tooth costume and little black hat trimmed with lace.   In the light of the window, which looked out on to the street, Rita seemed even more radiant.   John couldn’t believe his luck!  She was beautiful!  Fair play to Mickey, he thought.  John and Rita fell into conversation with ease, as if they had known one another for years.   He gladly filled her in on his life on the farm and she in turn told him she had recently returned from America.   All too soon their meeting had come to an end and Mickey had arrived back to the hotel to take John’s new lady friend home.   As the months passed news of the courtship spread throughout the parish and this made John feel a bit uncomfortable.   Nevertheless, he continued to meet Rita every Sunday evening for a stroll and a chat through the countryside.   All was going well, until John noticed a change in the relationship.  Of course he paid no heed to the people who said,  “be careful John, she’s after your money.”  But, he did become suspicious when she talked endlessly about the size of his farm.  Now, he was in a very difficult position.  He wondered what  was the right thing to do.  Should he take his chances and pay no heed to the rumours, or, end the courtship and risk Mickey The Limp calling him a coward?   As John nursed his troubled mind in front of his open turf fire Molly positioned herself along side him as if to offer him some comfort.   John’s imagination began to take hold.  He could see the benefits of having a wife. Wouldn’t the place look grand, he thought, with a woman’s touch? On the other hand maybe she is only after me for my money.

In the end John came to the conclusion that he’d give it more time and maybe the right decision would come to him then.   Meanwhile, he continued to see Rita every Sunday as arranged but her questions kept coming.   Then one Friday he met Mickey The Limp in the town and he knew it was going to be impossible to avoid the inevitable.

“John,” shouted Mickey from across the street, “have you a minute there?”  The town was at its busiest on Fridays when all the people came in from the country to stock up on goods for the week.  John had just emerged from Doherty’s shop after delivering his usual supply of country eggs for their customers.

“You’ve just saved me a trip out to your place later on,” says Mickey The Limp as he approached.   The two men shook hands and began conversation, discussing farm prices and general news in the parish.  This done, however, John knew what was coming next and Mickey The Limp didn’t hesitate to bring up the subject of marriage.  He informed John, that he had been talking to Rita and she was anxious to move things on.  It seemed that her brother was about to take a wife shortly and wanted the home place free.

“So, you see John, I need to give her your decision,” Mickey said, in anticipation of a new entry into his official red book.

“I see,” John said, fixing his cap into a more confident position.

“Well in that case you’d better tell her that there is only enough work for myself on the farm, and maybe she’d have better luck if she returned to America!

Larry’s Proposition

Hannah Masterson

She didn’t mean it, did she?

Larry lifted his cap from his head and scratched his brains in horror. His weathered hands leaned on his stubbled face as he pulled his features into a point at his chin. This action he performed several times before he finally returned the cap to his head, with a swift slap.

She couldn’t mean me? Not me.

Larry mumbled over bits of broken sentences, half muffled in the side of his jaw. He straightened his back, coughed up the spit from his throat and spumed words out loud like,

“Damn and blast that woo ……” when it dawned on him, that someone might hear, or sense the fear that churned inside his stomach.  In panic Larry reached for his bicycle and swung himself onto the saddle. Larry stole a quick glance over his right shoulder, to check that no person, or any sort of devil chased him down Bridge Street.

Bridge Street was a cobbled narrow street and a short-cut to Thurbawn, the main road.  As he was cycling the right sleeve of Larry’s worn out tweed jacket got caught in the solid pipe, the pipe he had purchased earlier, back in Paddy’s hardware store. This black sold pipe stuck out a foot or so in front of Larry’s stomach, and came out through a hole in a blue plastic bag he had tied safely to the big handlebars.  Larry struggled desperately to take the corner into the main road for Thurbawn. While struggling to adjust himself, Larry pulled hard on the brakes and slipped his boots to the ground. Unfortunately all did not go well.   All you could see were coloured sparks lighting up his big black boots and jutting zig zag cut into the tar macadam. His wheels wobbled to and fro.  The back wheel hit a sharp stone. Dismay shot across Larry’s face as he found himself and the bike veering off the road. His big lumpy body landed upside down in a large, nettle-infested ditch.

“Aaaaaaaaaaah. Oh. NoooOOO!”

Thud!  Crash! Thud!

Larry roared out frantically in pain he wailed.

“Jesus, God, I’m finished,” Larry wailed.  “Oh for f ….ks sake!”

Larry’s left hand was now caught in the spokes of the front wheel, while his right arm lay tangled up in the broken oily chain.  He was sunk knee deep in ripe nettles.  He tugged crazily from left to right to free his injured arm, firing bits of nettles in all directions.  None of this mad effort paid off.   He couldn’t disengage his arm from the chain.

“Aaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaah! he squealed like a crushed pig in a sty.  An open bag of frosty buns that he had bought earlier in Maggie’s Cake Shop, slowly dripped their dusty bits into his half-open gob making him choke.  The vivid recollection of Maggie’s Cake Shop experience nearly asphyxiated him. With that, Larry contorted up his body and roared,

“This hell of a Bloody bicycle. Get me outta here.  Outta here.”

Blood now spewed from his nose. Larry’s prime nose took the shape of the  Bay of Biscay and its colour had developd into a reddy-plum.  Meanwhile, Larry missed the ragged grey cap from his head. He swung out his free hand in search of the grey thing in the grass. His panic rose at the thought of losing the cover for his marbles.

“Oh, Mary Jane. Aaaaaah.”

The sudden memory of the Cake Shop and the dread that drove him out of the shop in the first place, was bad enough, but, but the thought of Mary Jane seeing him in such a state, and without his cap? Why, why the episode of the bicycle mess was nothing compared to ….to….the sight of  the few hairs left on his bear bald head, that could put Mary Jane off him for life. Forever.

“Jesus Man.  Help! Help me!” he spluttered anxiously.

Like a demented animal, Larry pushed and shoved his very best to free the tangled mess when, suddenly, the bicycle uprooted itself and bounced giddily away from him across the road.  It just missed Murphy’s collie dog that was chasing after Maggie’s black Cheshire cat.  The cat leapt in full stretch to reach the field gate into the big meadow. MeoW. Meow. screeched from the other side of the field, followed by woof!  Woof!  Then silence fell. The chase had ended, for now at least.

Larry whimpered, “Can I move at all? Jesus, can I move any part of me?”

Blood trickled down from his nose, over his jacket, trousers and all over the grass. Quite abruptly, he heaved himself onto his knees and roared like an injured lion.  At the same time, the thick thorns tortured his heavy buttocks with every movement he made.

That woman Maggie Kelly has a lot to answer for, he moaned.  Her making sweet remarks, making passes at me, and wanting to cavort with me in her back kitchen.

More scourging of thorns stung him as he wrestled with his mind.

Wanting single men for fun and frolics, she said. Especially you Larry.  Oh, that sly smile of hers, he thought.  And all that powder and paint.

He imitated her voice one more time in a soft female tone.

“Especially you Larry!” and he preened his hair like a girl and swirled his head slightly. Exasperated, he got up and wiped his brow in a defeatist sort of way. The cap that he had returned to his head only minutes ago was now tossed back to the ground in disgust.

“Ask me out, Larry, you won’t regret it,” she begged. “The nerve of her.”

Still, Larry felt faint, and he didn’t know if it was the trip off the bike or the shock of Maggie’s words that had him light headed.

“And me half-spoken for to Mary Jane,” he ranted.

Larry and Mary Jane were friends from school days. They lived near one and other, and everyone assumed they would be a couple one day. After his school education Larry went to Dublin, up to his Uncle Kevin’s Clothing business, to learn all about the rag trade, but, Larry didn’t care much for the business, or the city, and so he returned home after one year. Mary Jane stayed home to take care of her invalid mother and younger brother. Her father worked long hours on their small farm. Larry and Mary Jane remained good friends, but, no one ever knew if they ever made a commitment to each other.  For a few minutes Larry scolded himself, then said, “pull yourself together man. She’s only a woman. A woman.”

Any other woman, he thought. But it’s not any other woman, it’s that big bosomed flirtatious cougar, called Maggie Kelly.  Larry sat himself upright. He checked out his left hand for cuts. It was fine. His right hand was quite blistered and bruised, with some nasty cuts. His arm had already loosened itself from the pulling and tugging backwards and forwards.

Could be worse, he thought.  Sighing, he cleaned his bloody nose with the back of his hand, and stood up as straight as a pin.  A stabbing pain to ran down the back of his two legs.

“I’ll live,” he grumbled making his way across the road to investigate his beloved bicycle.  In his heart he knew it wasn’t fit for anything now and he sure wasn’t fit to cycle. He shrugged his sore, weary shoulders, tugged the solid pipe from the plastic bag and began to hobble down the road.  Minutes later, a white van pulled up alongside him.

“Jesus, Larry.  What happened to you? shouted out Tom Roche, his next door neighbour. “Did ya win the fight?”

“What fight?” Larry snapped, brushing down his clothes with his dirty hand. “Any chance of  a lift Tom?  Have ya room for me?”

“Sure,” said Tom beckoning Larry to walk round to the other side. “You’ll have to squeeze in beside Mary Jane.”

“What,” Larry cried out in fright, his hand jumping off the half opened passenger door, like he had been electrocuted.

“Mary Jane, wont mind, will you?” called in Tom.

“Not at all,” said a soft-spoken voice.  “I will make room.”

Mary Jane moved over.  Larry climbed into the van, his knees buckled in fright, as he sat himself close to Mary Jane. Still shaken, he sat in silence, taking side-glances at his lovely Mary Jane.

“Hello, Mary Jane,” he managed to say quietly.

“Well, Larry,” her tone sort of raised and fell again in horror.  “Oh, my God, what happened to you?” she gasped.

“A daft thing happened,” he tried to reply casually, “I fell off me bicycle and landed in the ditch.  I’d a bit of a sudden puncture. I hit a sharp stone, and, and lost control of the bicycle.”

“Speeding, Larry, speeding,” teased Tom Roche.

Larry half laughed and stretched out his long legs in front of him. He ached all over. Mary

Jane joined in the laughter but stared straight ahead, not able to look at Larry in case she exploded laughing at the cut of him.

“I’ll drop you off home first Larry,” said Tom Roche, raising his broad shoulders.  “You need to take care of them cuts.”

“No. No he can come home with me,” said Mary Jane firmly. “I’ll will wash and disinfect them hands.”

“Good woman, so that’s settled,” Tom Roche said with a cheeky grin, knowing fine well that Mary Jane would do anything for her man.

In that moment, Larry figured the fall off his bicycle was like a blessing in disguise. Today, he had all the time in the world to talk to Mary Jane. He had so much he wanted to say to her. She would take care of him.

The tale of the Cake Shop would have to wait for another day.

Tooth Appeal

By Valerie Masters

The tears were starting to flow now, as the ache in my mouth became more and more sore. I angrily rubbed away the tears and made my way outside to sit down on the ground. What was I going to do? I had had this awful pain for days and I wished so much I hadn’t told mammy. I tried to call her last night when I was in bed to tell her the pain was gone but my sister sushed me. I tried again a while ago, but again, my nosey sister told me to shut up! I think she wants me to go to the dentist and suffer a torturous fate.

Now, time is running out and I can’t tell mammy because my sister is watching me, and she warned me she’d kill me if I went anywhere near mam. Apparently mammy is going through the menopause so I can’t be bothering her.

Lucky mammy.  I wouldn’t mind going through the menopause because it sounds like a brilliant fairground ride. If I sat here really quiet I’m sure I’d hear the fairground man shouting,

“Roll up.  Roll up.  Take your place and witness the thrill of the menopause.”

Ow!  My mouth.

I am sooo afraid of needles. Why did mammy have to ring the dentist? I wish everyone would leave me and my tooth alone. Sure, it pains me and sometimes I feel like hitting my jaw with one of the jam jars lined on the kitchen window, but I really don’t want to have it out.

The stories I’ve heard.

One of my sisters told me the dentist straps you into her electric chair and

sticks a big needle into your gum, then takes out a big drill thing to drag out the tooth. I’ve seen daddy drilling holes in walls and I don’t want that going on in my mouth.

“Valerie.”

I jolt.  Mammy’s voice ending the thoughts running mad in my head.

“Oh no.”

I look around me desperately. I have to hide. But where? What about the ditch that divides our house with the neighbours. It was the closest place to me but the big dog next door would give me away. I hate dogs and the bloody bugger was always slobbering on me. I’d have to make my way to the hedge in front of the house. If I could get to it I’d be safe because I could run over the road and into the field on the far side. I like that field ‘cause it’s full of little bushes like a maze and any other day and I’d spend hours in it pretending to be lost.  But not today.  I can’t think straight with the pain.  You should see me.  I’ll make a great actress some day. I’m eight years old now, so I figure I’ll be playing Scarlet O’Hara by the time I’m fifteen. I reckon I’ll be very good looking when I’m fifteen, ‘cause ugly kids are usually good looking when they’re teenagers. Just watch Oprah on the telly.  If I was caught watching Oprah, my arse would be red for a week. But unknown to mammy and daddy, I watch it all the time and she has all the before and after pictures of good looking girls and believe me they were once so ugly. I was not as bad as some of them, in fact, I think a smaller nose would make a huge difference.

“Valerie, Are you deaf? Get yourself into the car this minute, the dentist is waiting.”

Oh no, mammy’s coming for me. Why am I always daydreaming? It’ll be my downfall one of these days. I could have been in the field with my tooth safe for another day. I’ll have to trash out a deal with her before I agree to go.

“Mammy,” I shouted at the top of my voice. “I’m only going to the dentist if you bring me on the menopause with you!”

The Porcelain Urn

By Marie Noone

An adolescent boy with long golden hair and wearing a blue cloak draped across his shoulders beckoned her to follow him. The unfocused glaze of his sea-green eyes made Morag’s heart race and her hands sweat. Despite her fear, Morag followed him across an ocean of peat and heather. No matter how hard she tried; she could never catch up with him. Her cries begging him to tell her what he wanted were carried away by the wind.

Ahead was a range of craggy rocks like two-dimensional cut outs against a darkening sky. The youth began to climb. Morag followed, heaving herself upwards, the flinty stone cutting into her arms and legs. As she climbed, the sky turned to pitch. At last she was standing upright, the wind whipping her body. Spreading her arms to steady herself, she cried out to the youth whose laughter shook the rocks beneath her. Then she saw him. He stood with his hands by his side illuminated like an orange flame. Spellbound, she watched as he raised his arms and dived. With his cloak billowing out behind him, he soared through the air like a bird ablaze.  Morag – arms outstretched, stumbled after him. Blackness engulfed her along with the shocking realisation that she had gone over the edge. All sense of time stopped, as down she dropped.

Crying out, Morag awoke. Afraid to move, the rapid thump of her heart pounded in her ears. What was happening? She had been having this same dream for weeks, but tonight was the first time she had fallen. Instinctively seeking the warmth of David’s back, the icy sheets sent a spasm of realisation through her and she cursed for having bought a double bed.

Clutching a mug of coffee, Morag sat hunched in front of the gas fire. Knowing she would not sleep any more that night.  She dreaded another day of having to cope with twenty-six lively infants at school. She usually enjoyed their spontaneity and creativity, but something had happened recently which disturbed her. At Story Time she had been reading to the children and seeing their eyes round with wonder and their lips pursed in concentration, she was suddenly filled with rage. Why should she be teaching other people’s babies when she had been denied one herself? Thirteen childless years she had lived with David. She had wanted children but David had been adamant.

“We have each other. Isn’t that enough for you? Besides, I’d make a lousy father.”

Bastard! She had trusted him.  Loved him.

“Sonia is pregnant,” rang in Morag’s head.  An eternal echo. “I never meant to hurt you and I still love you, but Sonia isn’t strong like you and she’d never cope as a single mother.”

Pacing the room, Morag picked up a porcelain urn they had bought in the Portobello Road Market, one sunny Saturday morning, soon after moving into their new flat together. Having spent all their housekeeping, she had teased David about having to live on baked beans and toasted cheese sandwiches for the rest of the week. Hurrying home, they had tried to prise open the lid. When it wouldn’t budge, David had taunted her, saying it probably contained some poor sod’s ashes. His remark had spoilt her elation that day. He’d had the habit of doing that.

She should have got rid of the urn when she left London and moved to Lichfield.  Placing it back, it suddenly struck Morag that the pattern was the exact blue of the boy’s cloak in her dream. Sitting with her back to the fire, she couldn’t get warm. What if David had been right and the urn did contain somebody’s ashes? Supposing the ashes were the remains of the boy in her dream and he had come back to haunt her. Rousing herself, she laughed nervously. This was too melodramatic. She would make a start on preparing next week’s lessons and then it would be time to get ready for school. She had to remain active otherwise she would lose her grip on reality.

Morag somehow kept going to the end of term. When the dream woke her early that first morning of her holiday, she got up and packed a bag. As an afterthought, she wrapped the urn in a rug and placed it on the back seat of her car.

Driving northwards, having no idea where she was going, she had to fill her time somehow. Thinking she might stop when she got to the Lake District, she kept on driving. Crossing the border into Scotland, a wave of nostalgia swept over her. She could turn back.  She wanted to turn back, but she drove on.

Stopping when she got to Glasgow, she booked into a hotel for the night.  Wandering the streets before bed.  She was a stranger in her hometown until a melody stirred something deep within her, drawing her back. A busker was singing. Stopping to listen, she was a child again looking up at her father while he sang that haunting song. Again the words entered her heart. She had been proud of her father then and had wanted more of him. A committed Trade Unionist, it was Morag who got angry when her father was home late. Her mother never complained.

She had been close to her mother as a child. On a Saturday if the weather was fine, they would take a bus and spend the day in the country. Looking wistfully at the Scottish hills.  Her mother talked of her native Donegal. Sometimes she talked about her golden haired son, her first-born who died when he was three.

“To lose a child is the worst thing that can happen to a woman,” her mother would say.

On their way home, Morag would shrug off her father’s atheism and go willingly into the dark church with her mother after that. Shutting the oak door behind them and entering a sacred place, heavy with incense and flickering candles, they’d tip-toe across the parquet floor to Our Lady’s altar to light a candle for the dead child. Keeping her eyes on her mother’s face she watched while her mother held the burning taper to the candle-wick. It happened so fleetingly that, if she breathed, Morag would miss it. As the candle flame flared, her mother would be transfigured, her face as composed and radiant as the framed golden Madonna hanging above the altar. By the time they kneeled to pray for her dead brother, her mother’s sorrowful expression was back.

Her mother died suddenly, just before Morag’s graduation from a London college. Her father died a year later, but she had been living with David by then. Absorbed by her life with David and her work, she hadn’t telephoned her father when she should. Visiting him just the once after her mother’s death, she’d thought he was coping. Anger surged through her. Clenching her teeth to stop herself from breaking down in a Glasgow street, what would her parents think of her now? It had been a mistake to come back. She had to get away.

On the road early next morning, she drove alongside Loch Lomond, where mauve and russet mountains were reflected in the clear water. Opening the window, she felt the breeze on her face and hair. On she went, passing mountain upon mountain, forests shadowy glens and fast flowing streams. When she came to Crainlarich, she thought she might stop, but within an hour she was on the road again heading for Oban.

As Morag wandered along the quay, memories of their only family holiday came rushing back. As she looked at the fringe of small islands across the Firth of Lorn, she knew what she must do.

Early the next morning, she crossed the sea to Mull. Then she drove across a deserted landscape where towering peat-black mountains filled her with awe. Leaving her car at Fionphort and carrying the urn wrapped tightly in a rug, she walked up the slippery gangway to the waiting ferry. It was a clear October’s day and the colours were sharp and clearly defined. Standing in the bow, she looked across to Iona which rose out of a turquoise sea, slashed with purple.

After depositing her bag in the sprawling two storey Bishop’s House where she’d reserved a room, she followed the winding road to the abbey, where she and her father had walked on one of their educational jaunts. As she walked, the weather was continually changing. When the sun shone, the landscape looked as vibrant as a photograph in a glossy holiday brochure. Without warning, dark clouds were racing across the sky blocking out the sun. The hills across the water darkened and the sea turned to ink. A sharp wind bore through her. Pitching forwards, she forced herself onwards. The sun reappeared and the cycle began all over again, her mood fluctuating like the weather.

Sitting in the dimly lit Abbey, drawing comfort from the ancient stones and mildewed air, tinged with candle-grease, she lost all sense of time.

That night Morag was so weary she could hardly stand. It was a relief to fall into bed. Her room overlooked a small garden which was flanked by a sheaf of rocks and the sea beyond. Lulled to sleep by the sea, she drifted in and out of strange dreams where the real and the surreal were entangled. Her room was a cave bathed in silvery moonlight and the sea was swirling beneath her bed. Earlier that day she had been aware of an ancient force which pulsated through the rocks. And now that force was in her room and she was filled with terror.

Switching on the light, she closed the window and pulled the curtains, shutting out the moon and the incessant hiss of the sea. Near morning she dreamed of the golden-haired youth and she recognised the Ionian landscape.

Morag crept from the house at dawn concealing the urn in her rug. The weather was windy, misty and wet. Walking determinedly across a spongy bog, she headed for the highest point on the island. There was not a living creature in sight.

Cradling the urn as she climbed, the rocks were slippery making her slip and slide, grazing her legs and arms. A sheaf of sheer rock blocked her path and she had to make a detour seeking a safer place to climb.

Reaching the summit at last, Morag felt the urge to turn three times. Ignoring her impulse as superstitious nonsense, she revealed the blue and white urn. Running a hand over its glazed and bulbous surface, she almost faltered. Her last link with David, could she really let it go? The wind buffeted her and she was reminded of her dream and the golden-haired boy who had led her to this place. Before she could change her mind, she held the urn aloft.

“You can be free now. May you rest in peace.”

Dashing the urn against the rocks, it broke neatly into three. Staring in disbelief at the glazed interior which gleamed white and clean she laughed at her stupidity. There were no ashes. There was no ghost of a boy.  Morag kicked the fragments over the edge.

It was over.

The mist lifted and there was a glimmer of sunlight. Life was stirring beneath her as smoke puffed from the tiny farmhouses scattered about the island. Islanders were eating their breakfasts. Realising she was ravenous she should head back to her lodgings. Then what would she do? She could leave the island today, take her time travelling back, stopping wherever she liked, or she could stay on Iona for another day or two. There were possibilities. Life was full of possibilities. Feeling suddenly lighter she twirled three times for the sheer fun of it, and then began her descent.