|The next day being Saturday me Ma let me sleep in, but
of course I did little of that, instead pulling the covers up round me
legs and going over every detail, stuck on his face and the way that he
walked and well, I spent some time thinking about how those lips might
feel I can tell ye. And then it started—I could hear me Ma
banging with the pots and then the shouting. I didn’t need to
hear the words, but I could, every one of them.
“We’ll not have this family run with money made in
a bar! If my mother was alive….”
“I have made my decision and that’s the end of it Cathleen! And what’s more, she’s to stop over with Maggie O’ Shea to save me fetching her home in the dead of night.”
I didn’t breathe out, and there was a silence in the next room that made my heartbeat sound as loud as the thump of those water pumps on the river. Then they started again, and if the argument had been loud before, this was a hundred times that, only now I wasn’t listening, me mouth open and me head swimming. When I could move, I scrambled to the cupboard and pulled open the drawers, looking for Christ knows what, a surprise new dress to mark the occasion that God had just seen fit to leave me. Well He already made one miracle, but this new one wasn’t to be, and I slammed the drawers shut again, sitting back on the bed shaking me head and nevertheless smiling like an idjut.
I spent the day making meself scarce and busy, not giving me Ma chance to start the conversation I knew she was dying to and by 6 o’clock I had managed it. Me Da sitting on the cart and her face like thunder, but I kissed it all the same and tried to look like I had the burdens of Job on me back, a weary “See you tomorrow at church then,” before I turned to go.
“Now then lass, I know you think this is an adventure like those stories I told you,” he was looking at me as we bumped along. A grin, “Oh aye, it is an adventure, but I am trusting you me girl, we don’t need any…well now…that is to say, we don’t need any more trouble in this family.”
And before I had sense to stop meself I smiled, all self satisfied and stupid, “Ah now Da, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know what those boys are after, that Aaron Sheritt and…”
I wish I had kicked meself harder, should have just let him say his piece. Instead, me Da’s eyes were flashing and he pulled up the cart, “You stay away from them! You hear me Evie!”
We passed the rest of the journey in silence, and then he was gone. I watched the back of him disappear, a weight in me head, something about not letting him down, but a deep breath and I pushed open the door of the bar with a grin so wide you’d have thought the Queen herself had invited me to stay. Maggie looked up at me, and if she meant to return the grin, it was far from that. A look up to see Tom O’Leary busy behind the bar, and she nodded towards the cellar door.
In the dark dampness she took my hand in hers, “Tom says you are to stay with me tonight.”
“Well aye,” I said, doubtful and trying to guess what she was going to say.
She took pity on me, “Ah, don’t look so worried now, we’ll have a grand time, but it’s just that I have a problem, well not a problem as such. Ah Jesus, look, Joe is going to come by tonight, not to the bar.” Pennies the size of boulders were dropping on me toes and my mouth was open for the second time that day. “Thing is he was gonna stay for a while, you know.”
I was blushing and I knew it, not only for embarrassment, but because even then I had an inkling of what that might mean, what he would be doing to her. And to tell the truth it made me stomach feel funny, not to mention someplace else, as I recall.
There was no time to sort it out as Tom was shouting from upstairs, and we both scuttled like beetles to hide our thoughts from showing. Flashes of it came to me mind as I carried crates and bottles up and down. Saturday night was, if anything, busier than Friday, and by the time Mr. O’Leary banged the doors shut I was fair exhausted. A tap on me shoulder and Maggie led the way out of the bar and up the wooden stairs. I had never seen anywhere so grand, well I had never actually walked up a set of stairs before, never mind seen patterned paper on walls in someone’s house.
At the top she stopped and turned a key in the door in front of her, opening it up into a small room, not much more than a bed, a chest of drawers, and a closet to the side, but it looked like a palace to me all the same. Taking the candle she had carried from the bar, she lit the oil lamp that stood on a table next to the bed. A warm glow illuminated the colours of the blankets and the walls that I am sure must have seen better days, but there was never a better day for me than right now. In unison we slumped on the bed and reached down to untie each other’s bootlaces, kicking them off against the wall before lying back against each other.
“What shall I do, Maggie?” She hesitated and then we stumbled all around the alternatives, none of which were any more workable than the rest—sleeping in the pub itself, another room, going home, even the corridor outside.
“Look, I’d not ask you, but on my life, Evie, I want him here, and well,” she was looking anywhere and everywhere but at me, a rush of words from her mouth, “I love him touching me. We only did it the once before and all, and me Ma would kill me without a ring on me finger for sure, but…”
“Maggie, “ I interrupted her flow, “I think I understand.” We managed to let our eyes meet for just a second.
“Well I was wondering, since we can’t think of anything else, what if you sat in the closet? We could put a blanket in there and everything.”
A few seconds passed while we both thought that through, and then, well I don’t know where it came from, but I couldn’t stop it, just a glance at her and she was there too, both of us laughing out loud with the thought of it, mixed all up with ssshhh’s and giggles and hands over mouths. Between it all, “What if he hears me, Maggie?” but we both knew what I meant. Neither of us had ever lived in a house where the walls were thick enough to stop you hearing, never mind a closet.
“Well now, you don’t have to peep.” A look between us, and it was settled. “He will be here soon,” a crack in her voice that sent a shiver.
To distract ourselves we cleared a space in the closet. There was not much but a couple of old dresses and a pair of boots, but Maggie seemed determined to make it comfy. “How long do you think?” I was trying to make small talk, you know like you would at the bar, but this was not “And how is your old mother, Mr. McGinty?”
Her look was nothing like easy. “Ah well, no matter, this looks just grand anyhow. I will be asleep in minutes.” We both knew it was a lie but nevertheless she smiled.
“Evie, thank you.”
I shook me head and grinned. “You’re me mate, what else is there to do? I expect you would do likewise.” A giggle at the very thought of it, and then we heard it—a whistle outside, piercing the air and freezing us for just a second.
It stirred us into a flurry. Maggie’s hands in her hair and a look that reflected mine, and for some reason I kissed her cheek. When I thought about it after, it seemed to be like me Ma did on that first day at school, only I guess she wasn’t going to learn no reading. I squeezed into the closet and pulled the door to, a frown, I am sure, when I couldn’t get it to shut, there being no handle in the inside. “Maggie,” a whisper as I tried to slip me fingers and close the door at the same time, “Maggie!” But she was already at the window, pulling back the cloth that covered it and lifting the latch.
I could feel me heart pounding already.
“Ah there you are, lass. I‘ve been waiting all night to see you” His voice was suddenly in the room and so loud I couldn’t believe it. I squeezed me eyes closed tight.
A creak of the bedsprings, “Ah Joe,” Maggie’s voice a little shaky, “will I fetch you a beer?”
“It’s not beer I want lass.”
I was hardly breathing, and I daren’t move a single muscle for fear of the noise that it would make, but the next sounds almost made me gasp—a mew like a cat and the renewed creak of the springs, the rustle of cotton, and a little giggle that sounded nothing like Maggie.
My head was swimming, I think I really needed to breathe, and me eyes shot open to find something to focus on, remind me where I was. If I was hoping for Maggie’s old shoes and the back of the closet door to do the trick, which in truth I don’t know if I was or not, what was before me did precious little to throw me head a lifeline. Through the crack in the door I could see his head, his curls, his face, kissing her underneath him, while his fingers pulled at the bows of her underclothes, Maggie’s arms were around his neck. But what I saw next took me breath away, her petticoats all undone, his hands were on her breasts, circling over them, his thumbs over her nipples. I watched his eyes taking her all in, a smile around his mouth, “Ah sure you are beautiful, Maggie.”
I didn’t know what to do in truth, a flash of “This shouldn’t happen,” but the look on her face was nothing like outrage. Then she moaned, and me eyes flicked to the part of the gap so I could see him better, and I couldn’t help meself, “Oh Jesus.” He had her breast to his mouth. I couldn’t even blink. Of course it was not an unusual sight for itself, I had seen me Ma feeding our Sean and even Mary as a babe, but here HE was, oh those curls, with his mouth to her breast sucking, holding them like they were the most precious things he just found. I couldn’t move a muscle, just “Oh Jesus” whispering out of me lips.
And then, God help me, his voice, which I will never forget, “Will you let me, Maggie?”
I was still recovering from the sound of his voice, that question, when I heard the bang of boots hitting the floor, the clink of a belt, and saw a little smile as I realised she had said “Yes.”
I knew I shouldn’t see it, I knew this was private, and if not between man and wife than was as good as, although I never imagined me ma looked quite like Maggie did right now, her head tilted back as he kissed her. I shut me eyes again and put me hands against me ears, and the only thing that came to me was the Hail Mary, so that’s what I said inside me head over and over, for only God knows how long, pushing meself back against the wood of the closet and hoping that the rhythm of it would take me. I wondered for a while if you could get absolution and have sinful thoughts both at the same time, whether it would work like that, only there was no chance I would be asking Father O’Donahue that particular question in confession the next morning.
And the rhythm of it did take me, only the Virgin Mary couldn’t compete, little groans and the sound of the bed against the wall providing a far deeper beat that connected. I could almost feel meself swaying with it, and I opened me eyes and leaned forward to see better. Well I don’t suppose I have many blushes to spare by now, but nonetheless I can’t describe it all. I thought I would rot in hell, but I couldn’t help meself push the door just a little, wide-eyed as I watched him move deep between her legs, his naked skin perfect and smooth in the candle light, his shoulders flexing as he pushed against her, and god forgive me, I felt a flush inside me that had me fingers aching to touch.
I could hear him breathing hard and mixing with her moans and “Oh Joes,” and to tell the truth I was glad when it came to the end, cos I was about ready to join my voice to theirs. He pushed against her white legs so hard I could almost feel it, and then they slowed down, shivering and collapsing, and I don’t know about Maggie, but I felt like crying.
I stretched me legs out, suddenly aware of the stiffness, but then froze as the heel of Maggie’s boot scraped the bottom of the closet. With me eyes screwed up tight I waited, not a single breath. I could hear him shift, “What was that?”
A pause before Maggie spoke, “Ah sure it’ll be Tom down the hall.”
Me eyes were screwed up so tight me head hurt, but I could hear him pick up his trousers from the sound of a belt. “Aye, maybe it was Aaron outside. He said he would come back.” Softness then to his voice, “Ah will ye come here my beauty.”
There was no way I was going to look at anything more, even if I could, a flood of relief through me and I just waited, the sounds of soft kisses, and then, “I will be on me way now. I’ll come by the bar when you are working for sure. Tuesday is it? Aye of course it is.” A sound of nothing and then I got me answer, “Ah sure now, don’t cry Maggie, I have to go. Old man O’Leary would call the coppers if he found me here in the morning, you know that.”
The wind blowing through the now-open window must have caught the door of the closet. I jumped out of me skin as it banged shut, glad though I was, I remember now, to be in the dull black inside there as they said their goodbyes. Moments later I blinked as Maggie opened the door, her cheeks still wet but with a rosy hue, and I struggled to stand, instinctively reaching to tie up the strings of her petticoat as I smiled at her.
“I need to sleep, Evie.”
“Come on then.” It was too big to talk on yet, so I pulled back the quilt and we climbed inside the warmed covers, shifting around to find the best comfort before she closed her eyes. I remember thinking it would be a while still before I could sleep, at the very least I had to figure out what to say to the face behind the confession screen.
I must have sorted it out enough to be able to sleep, because the next thing I knew there was a cold, dirty light shining, well come to think of it “shining” might not be the word, more kind of “leaking” through the material that hung at the window. As me senses woke up I could feel the movement of Maggie’s body against mine, little jerks—she was crying. I sat up alarmed, “What in heaven’s name is the matter, Maggie?” I couldn’t stop me mind racing round all sorts of things. Was she hurt? Did it hurt the next day? It had looked so beautiful, still, well I just didn’t know.
Her face was still turned away, “Don’t take it badly, Evie, but I wish he was here when I woke up.”
Worried as I was, I could see that there would be truth in that, and I slipped me legs out of the covers, which only made her cry all the more. So I did the only thing I could think of and laid down next to her, me arms just resting on hers. “I guess he will be though, Maggie, when you and him are married.”
I thought the silence might hurt me ears, and I wondered if she had stopped breathing. Then when I was about to lean over and check, a small voice said, “He does love me you know, Evie, he told me.”
If I had been confused before I was furrowing me brow now. “Well he must Maggie, he done that to you.”
Now she did turn round and her eyes, I will never forget, full with tears and yet with a look I couldn’t quite make out at first, until I realised that was because I was used to seeing it someplace else. Me Da. Me Da looked like that when another crop failed or another store of tatties were blighted, a mixture of fear and defiance. I couldn’t stop looking at her while she spoke, “I don’t think Joe Byrne is the marrying kind.” A breath and then something that just made my mouth fall wide open, “I think he has other girls too.”
It was all clanking round me brain—Tom O’Leary’s remarks, what me Da had said, Aaron Sherritt, the way Joe Byrne looked at a person, and a corner of a thought that I had to kick right out of me mind as soon as it came in, he had other girls. Shaking me head and hoping the thoughts would fall in a better order, I got out of bed for sure this time. “And you still let him?” I have to confess I don’t know why I said that, and as God is my witness, I didn’t want to know the answer, because me brain was already too full. All I knew was that I had to get out of there before it flooded.
“Evie, where are you going?” Maggie was struggling to untangle herself from the covers, her eyes now adding pain to the mixture of it all, but I just couldn’t stay.
“Home, Maggie, I got to go home. Will I see you on Friday? Aye, I will,” and I was almost falling down the stairs and out the door. I can still feel me heart pounding now as I pushed open the door and took a huge gasp of air from the street outside. I made sure the latch was closed behind me like I wanted to keep all that in, and I sat down on the edge of the horse trough to wait for me Da, praying he wasn’t going to ask me anything at all because I just couldn’t speak.
I had a bit of a wait, long enough to breathe again and wonder if I shouldn’t go back and comfort her, but then me mind would slip back into wondering, what was I gonna say? After all, I had nothing but questions, and I was as sure as can be she didn’t want to hear those. So I just sat there, and eventually me Da came. I watched him pull the cart down the street towards me, whistling and happy to see me. The cart had barely stopped before I was up on the seat next to him.
“Will we being going straight to church then, me girl?” Not a question really as we both knew that if we didn’t, there’d be no supper nor anything else for us back home. I was so grateful to hear his voice, and I nodded like fool. “Cat got your tongue, did she lass?” smiling at me as he urged the horse forward and his arm coming round me shoulders, and I could have cried.
“Ego te absolve.” That is the only part I can remember about that morning. I am willing to bet, just to add to me sins, that I heard all about the trials of a saint facing mortal peril in which he or she stood for good against evil, but all of a sudden it didn’t seem too straight forward. Ah sure I had heard me Da ranting about “that scoundrel Father Donaghue, and whose side was he on anyways?” Once when my brother Michael stole a few bits of ham from the kitchen of the big house where he worked, the priest had said he should be made to work there for nothing for a whole month, which didn’t seem right at all since it was going to waste anyhow. Now come to think of it, I had in me mind too what Father Donaghue had said to me about roasting in the fires of hell when, good girl that I was, I had told him that Danny McCabe had kissed me and tried to touch me, like it was my fault and all.
Anyway, by the time it was my turn to go into the confession, to slip our family’s wooden rosary beads through me fingers, I was shaking, worried more about what on earth I would say, rather than the punishment I no doubt deserved. But as muddled as me mind was, I knew that to tell on Maggie was not the thing to do. So I muttered about cursing and angry thoughts against those coppers and that I had wanted a new dress. I took me “Ego te absolvo” with me head bowed so as he wouldn’t see me eyes, and for the second time already that morning, walked away on shaky legs as fast as I could go.