A Reading Life Special Event
"Back in the Days of Corncrakes" by Eddie Stack a Short Story
Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
In an act of supreme generosity Eddie Stack has sent me 22 short stories to post for Irish Short Story Month. I offer him my great thanks for this. I intend to share all of these short stories with my readers. He is a master story teller with a deep understanding of Ireland.
Press comments on his work
Press comments on his work
Praise for Eddie Stack’s writing
"Mr. Stack's fiction is versatile and engaging...a vivid, compassionate, authentic voice...securing (him) a place in the celebrated tradition of his country's storytelling.”
New York Times Book Review
“This second collection of short stories by Eddie Stack has a wonderful sense of unreality, of weirdness among Irish characters and of downright fun.”
“Eddie Stack’s stories jet back and forth across the Atlantic, contrasting small town Ireland and big city US. Every time they land, the author seems to test the borderline of what might and might not be possible in downtown bars, crumbling dance halls and drizzly farms. The result is a remarkably consistent collection of short stories.
Ian Wild, Southword
"Back in the Days of Corncrakes"
One glorious July morning, on my way to help John Joe Maher with the hay, I noticed a crowd in the town square. They were strangers: a film crew, so I strayed from my path and went to see what they were at.
Making television ads for Guinness, a gaffer told me. Great stuff, I thought, nothing like a bit of excitement and a bunch of strangers to give the town a lift. And what a great day for it. A day with butterflies, honey bees, soft scents of summer and the faraway sounds of hay machines.
John Joe would be interested in this, it would be right up his alley. I'd case the scene and bring it to him hot: great fodder for philosophical discussion while making hay under the mid-day sun. I made mental notes: there was at least a dozen men, running around like rats, all yapping and checking guages and dials and cameras. A few women in tight jeans who smoked hard, dashed here and there with clipboards and stopwatches. Everyone wore sunglasses and bright clothes, lots of neck scarves, jerkins and tweed caps. A fat man, wearing a baseball cap, sat on a chair in the back of a pickup truck and shouted at everyone. He was the director. When he saw me he roared,
“Hey you! What the hell are you doing over there? It's over here you should be!”
One of the women clutched my elbow and led me to where a few locals huddled in a caravan, fitting on white tuxedos: Gaga Murray, Paddy Logan, Stab Jordan, Matty Fullbright and Hopper Hogan. Pride of the Drinking Class. I was press ganged into the cast of the barman's race which was going to be a new tv ad for Arthur Guinness. Years later my grandmother would wail that that was when I lost my innocence and began slipping downhill. But that summer's morning there was no time to object, so I donned the tux and looked around for the cameras. I was just sixteen and mad for road. You could make hay on any sunny day.
A clipboard women came around with pages of forms to sign.
“Royalties,” whispered Matty Fullbright, “read everything extremely carefully.”
“When do we get our money?” whined Paddy Logan.
“Sign here sir,” the woman said, and he did because nobody had ever called him 'sir' before.
“Any hope of a few bottles of porter while we're waitin'?” asked Gaga Murray in the politest of voices.
“No problem,” she said and called someone on a walkie-talkie. In minutes, bottles of porter were frothing, cigarettes went around and we lounged in the caravan like the Rolling Stones before a gig. The crack was mighty. I was the youngest, and supped moderately, not being as used to drink as the others.
By the time the action began, the caravan was trottled with empty bottles; the lads must have downed at least two six pax each. We were hauled out into the sunlight, all eyes on us and I suddenly felt my feet go rubbery. Guards blocked off the street to traffic, the director waited for an aeroplane to pass overhead and we lined up at Healy's Corner. Six merry barmen in white coats, each carrying a tray with a bottle of Guinness and an empty glass. The director gave a countdown and on ACTION! we poured the porter into the glass like he ordered and ran with the trays balanced on one hand.
The first run was a disaster because Gaga Murray stumbled immediately and upset my tray. Porter spilled, glasses broke, and someone had to run into Healy's for a sweeping brush. Back to start. Next time was a little better, but we only got a few yards when something happened to a camera and it was 'fall out for a smoke and a bottle' time. I drank a little quicker-what else do you do with free beer, the lads encouraged, lashing it back as fast as they were able.
Paddy Logan began talking about 'agents' and 'contracts' and calculated how much we were making while we drank. Hopper asked if we could bring the tuxedos home with us and Stab wondered if this gig could affect the dole. Fullbright said we should make it last as long as we could and Gaga Murray, noticing we were running dry, called for more porter. No problem, the woman with the clipboard said.
“This is the life,” whispered Gaga , “say nothin', say nothin', this is the life. Hollywood. Hollywood.”
We had a third try at the race before breaking for lunch. Like the other 'shoots', this one was also a fiasco, marred (again) by Gaga who got an attack of nerves at the starting line and sprayed brown porter all over Logan's tuxedo. The director called him a 'bungler' and suggested finding a replacement. Fullbright stuck out his chest and warned,
“If you're going to replace Gaga, you'll have to replace us all. I don't give a fuck where you're from or who you're mother is- but if Gaga goes, we all go.”
The director was bewildered and shot quick looks at the rest of us. We played dumb. Fullbright went on,
“Anyway, we'll have to get more money to make this caper worth our while. I could be makin' hay today, instead of arsing around here waiting to do Arthur Guinness a favor.” Fullbright didn't own a blade of grass.
“More money!” screamed the director, “Jesus fella, you've already cost Guinness a fortune.”
“A fortune!” yelled Fullbright, “Jesus Christ, t'is Guinness that's cost us a fortune. Cost this whole fuckin' town a fortune.”
Before things got hotter, a man from the Sycamore Hotel arrived with a station-wagon full of sandwiches and dainties, tea, wine and coffee. Grub brought a cooling period and one of the women came over to our caravan while we ate and tried to reason with Fullbright who was now casting aspersions on the way things were being done. He said,
“I could shoot 'Gone With The fucking Wind' with half the crew here and still have change in my pocket.”
She nodded patiently and said if he left the director alone, she'd make sure that Gaga would be OK.
“But please take it easy, you fellas. Okay?”
“I wonder,” Gaga whispered to her, “would there be any chance of gettin' another drop of wine, t'is supposed to be great for the nerves.”
“No problem! Coming up! Just...just keep things cool, okay?”
“Mortal cool,” whispered Gaga, winking and nodding at her, “We won't say another word,”
We got back on 'the set' around two o'clock and by that time Gaga was totally spaced. Fullbright was full, the bottled porter giving him gas problems. Paddy Logan was banjaxed, a bottle in each hand, cigarette hanging from the lips, waiting for stardom. Stab had hic-cups and Hopper Hogan was filling his pockets with salad sandwiches.
The next shoot was a farce-Gaga again. Just as the cameras rolled he got the shakes and everything on his tray rattled like a snare drum. But he couldn't move, couldn't pick up the bottle and pour it into the glass like the director was shouting at us to do. The director screamed at him.
“Pour it you dumbhead! Pour the fucking thing!”
Gaga couldn't move, just shook like a statue in an earthquake. I thought he was going to shake himself apart and collapse into a heap.
“CUT!!!” roared the director before more film was wasted.
There was a mini-conference and Gaga and Fullbright were brought over to talk to the director who seemed to have turned purple. We could pick up some of the argument: Gaga has to go: Then we all go. Gaga is a liability: He only has a touch of stage fright. Then he shouldn't be here: Gaga has every right to be here, this is his home town.
Fullbright wanted to call a strike and a man from the local Chamber of Commerce was dragged in to mediate. A compromise was reached: Gaga got one last chance and if he blew it, he was out of the race and the man from the Chamber of Commerce took his place. We went back to start, Gaga was propped between Stab and myself for support.
“Christ,” he whimpered, “I'm burstin' to make a lake.”
The director was on the countdown.
“Hang on to it,” I muttered.
ACTION! We grabbed the bottles, poured the porter and rushed up the street, trays balanced like waiters. Everything was dunky-dory, no problems. Fullbright and myself were leading until about half-way up the town when Gaga passed us on the inside like a rocket, Grace Lennon's psychotic poodle snapping at his heels. Gaga's body was arched like an unfortunate cartoon character and my first reaction was 'that's him gone for a burton.' But the director kept the cameras rolling and zoomed in on the chase. The crew cheered, the dog went bananas, Gaga went faster. He won the race hands down, broke through the finishing line and kept going, straight into Hassett's pub, slamming the door in the poodle's face.
When Gaga re-appeared, race won, dog gone and bladder emptied, Fullbright was shouting at the director,
“Now is Gaga a liability? Hah? You'll never get a scene like that again. Hah? Gaga is a professional. This is the real thing man. Hah? The real Ireland.”
And so it was. Back in the days of corncrakes, and us poor peasants making tv ads instead of making hay.
Ellie settled into a booth in Harry's Diner and looked out the window at the goose-feather snow flakes tumbling down on Columbus, Ohio. Another winter, another year. Lately she began to worry about growing old and alone in America and foresaw a future of empty nights in a warm sitting-room with three yellow canaries for company. It never troubled her before, but this was her first winter without Antonio, the first Christmas she had ever spent all alone. On Christmas night she had wept by the fire when the season crept through the tinsel and the red-berried holly. Jingle bells and radio carols brought her back to the cradle and she cried for home for the first time in decades. But she'd never go back now.
Ellie scanned the menu. Clam chowder: it was a day for soup. Cindy Schultz, daughter of Harry, took her order and complained about the cold and the recession.
“By the way Mrs. Lazurino,” Cindy said, “you're Irish, right?”
“You know, we've a young girl from Ireland working here now, you guys must meet.”
Over soup, Ellie brooded on Ireland. She had heard from Monsignor O'Connor that the youth were leaving in thousands. No change. No future there, nothing but the past. Her own past was there-the worst part of it anyway. No wish to return. The young girl would be better off in America, look how good it had been to Ellie. She arrived with two dollars in her pocket one October Monday and never looked back. She worked hard for everything she got-but at least she got it. She was angry when she arrived and the work occupied her mind and blocked out the horror of the other side. She washed it away with soap and prayers; scrubbing floors by day and laundering clothes by night.
Even after she married Antonio she kept working twelve hours a day, though there was no need to. Poor Antonio was a good husband, the Lord have mercy on him. A thoughtful man who made a fortune from undertaking. He was obsessed with the solemn art of burying the dead and often told her everyone he buried went straight to heaven. He was a staunch Catholic, and so was she, but his faith was greater. Poor Antonio. Never asked about her previous life in Ireland. They never had a family. Antonio wasn't like that. Couldn't couple. But she didn't mind, she wanted a cloistered life.
Straight off the plane, Ellie thought with a smile when she met Stella Murphy, the young Irish waitress. Red hair, big innocent brown eyes, plump rosy cheeks.
“What part of Ireland are you from?” Ellie asked.
“A place called Tubberfola, West Clare.”
“Tubberfola?” Ellie repeated, “never heard of it.”
“Where are you from yourself?” the girl asked shyly.
“Ballygale,” said Ellie, sweetening her coffee with two tiny pills.
“Ballygale near Castlehowley?”
“Yes,” Ellie said, “that's the place.”
“I know it well!” the girl gushed, “my mother is from there. God but isn't it a small world.”
Ellie's cup stopped an inch from her mouth.
“My mother's maiden name was Frawly,” continued the girl, delighted to find an Irish soul on a snowy American day, “Her people had a shop near the school. You must know it.”
Ellie remembered it but shook her head and said,
“I've been gone a long time honey.”
Stella smiled sadly and said
“You should go back for a holiday sometime,”
Ellie shook her head and muttered,
“No honey. I've no wish to.”
“What age were you when you left?” Stella asked.
“Your age honey.”
“You must know The Phoenix Kelly so-he'd be about your own go.”
“Phoenix Kelly? No Phoenix Kelly there in my time.”
“You must know him,” the girl insisted, “he was a great ladies man. Murt is his proper name.”
The name Murt Kelly ruffled Ellie and she looked out at the falling snow.
“The only Murt Kelly I knew from Ballygale is long dead honey,” she muttered, with a frown, “may the Lord have mercy on him.”
“I bet it's his wife you're thinking of,” said Stella, “She was burned to death during the Civil War. That's who you're thinking about...No, Phoenix is alive as you or me.”
“Burned to death during the civil war?” Ellie muttered.
“She was only twenty-one or two, Ellie Kelly was her name.”
Ellie was stunned.
“We must be thinking of different Kellys,” she stammered. She was feeling weak. Confused.
“Ah no,” said the waitress firmly, “There's only one Murt Kelly-sure his second wife....”
Ellie collapsed in the booth as the words 'second wife' touched her ear drums. Second wife, she swooned with the snow outside. Stella screamed and stared wide-eyed as if she just found a corpse.
When Ellie came around, a young man who looked like a Mormon preacher was holding her hand and a woman in a fur coat passed smelling salts under her nose.
“I'm alright.” stammered Ellie, waving them away, “I'll be fine in a second.”
“Will I call you a cab Mrs. Lazurino?” Cindy asked nervously.
“Yes,” whispered Ellie, “please do.”
Ellie came home in a daze, fed the canaries and took out the decanter of Scotch. She half-filled a tumbler with ice and topped it to the brim with whiskey. She crumbled into her green armchair and stared at the fire, still bewildered by the news Stella Murphy had imparted. The waitress was the first person with word of Ballygale that Ellie met since she arrived in America, forty years before. She had put the place out of her mind, locked the door and vowed never to return. And now it was as if she was back in the middle of it.
“Jesus Mary an' Joseph,” she whispered, “but this couldn't be true. This couldn't be true. Or am I going crazy or something?”
The nightmare broke loose but she hadn't the strength nor the will to stop it. Ellie couldn't even muster up a prayer and relived The Night of the Burning. Black smoke stung her eyes, Hell on Earth. Ballygale, a brooding town torn in two by the Civil War, blood stained streets and burned out houses. A dark town where night came early and idealists fought with bullets and fire. She had been married to an idealist, a marked man who made her a marked woman. He told her it would only be a matter of time until 'they' would get them both and he begged her to leave but she stayed.
And then one night she woke alone in a bedroom full of smoke and heard the rush of flames up the stairs and the crack-crack-crack of gunfire down below. She cried Murt's name and thought she heard him telling her to run, run, run. Screaming prayers she groped up the attic stairs, flames at her heels, her husband swearing and cursing at Christ in the belly of the blaze. It was the prayers that saved her, she later told God, the prayers guided her out the skylight and over slate roofs and red-rust sheds to safe ground at the edge of the town. From Hogan's hay-barn she saw the flames eat through the roof of her house and heard the screams and shouts in the street.
“They're all inside,” a man roared.
“Oh Jesus have mercy on them,” she heard a woman wail, “get a priest. Get a priest.”
Politics, dead patriots and priests. Life cycle of the revolution. Ballygale on a winter's night, the pungent smell of smoke, crackling of a dying fire, shouting in the street, stars in the sky. Ellie pulled a man's trousers from the clothesline in Hogan's yard and fled the town.
After a few whiskeys, she called Monsignor O'Connor, the Irish pastor who lived across the road behind St. Mary's church. From start to finish, her story took more than a half-hour to tell and Monsignor O'Connor changed the receiver from ear to ear many times. He detected from her voice that she had been drinking and wondered for a split-second if she was hallucinating.
“What do you make of it?” Ellie asked finally.
“Well I'm shocked Ellie. Shocked. I mean I never knew you were married in Ireland.”
“Nobody did, Monsignor, it didn't matter before. But it's different now-if it's true-I mean if my first husband is alive. That's why I'm calling you. I'm wondering what to do about it.”
“If I were you, I'd confirm the facts before I'd do anything,” he said firmly. He turned in his swivel chair and gauged the distance to the drinks cabinet.
“That's what I was thinking Monsignor. I s'pose I could contact the local police station-they'd know if it's true. I mean if the Murt the girl was talking about is my Murt.”
“Well,” said the Monsignor, cleaning a tumbler with his handkerchief, “I wouldn't involve the police at this stage.”
He put his hand over the mouthpiece and poured whiskey quietly into the glass.
“No Ellie. In a small town that could lead to anything. This is too sensitive. It might only complicate things further. It could be embarrassing as well for all concerned-if this Murt Kelly is a different person.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Ballygale, you said Ellie. What diocese is that in? “
“Can you hold on one second until I get a pen...”
He left down the receiver and swallowed the whiskey in one draught, picked up the phone again and said,
“I'm back-Dunalla, that's Kevin Fox's territory-a colleague who was in Rome with me.”
“At the Vatican?”
“The Irish College, Ellie. If you like, I can get in contact with Monsignor Fox and maybe he could make a few discreet enquiries for us. But first I'll go and talk to that girl Stella...”
“God that'd be great Monsignor. Thanks a million.”
“Not at all Ellie. We're here for more than prayers.”
Monsignor O'Connor left down the receiver and sat still for a few seconds, then exhaled slowly and drank another shot of whiskey.
Stella Murphy had been dismissed by the time the priest got to Harry's Diner to check the facts and the clergyman carried a grave look when he met Ellie with the news. But he also brought good tidings: he had telephoned Monsignor Fox who agreed make the enquiries and search church records. Ellie gave her pastor the Kelly family landmarks, the births, deaths and marriages, red letter dates that still glimmered in her mind. He took it all down in neat writing in a small black notebook and promised to get the information to his colleague in Ireland immediately. Ellie poured him a generous glass of Irish whiskey and had tea herself. She wondered what she would do if the story was indeed true but the Monsignor said they'd cross that bridge when they'd come to it.
“But whether it's true or not,” she sighed, “it was a terrible shock to get.”
“If I were you, Ellie,” he advised, “I'd put the whole business out of my mind for the time being. Are you coming to the bingo tomorrow night?”
“I am Monsignor. You're right. The best thing to do is to stop wondering about it altogether. Sure it all might be some kind of a joke or something.”
“You never know,” he said, thinking how strange it was. In the years he had known Ellie, all she spoke about was her Italian husband and the funeral business in America. And now people were coming back to her from the dead. Just like a tabloid headline. The Monsignor wiped his brow. God preserve the parish from all harm, he prayed, leaving a thimbleful of whiskey in the glass. He refused all offerings of more drink.
“That's my limit,” he protested, rising to his feet.
At the door, she pressed a twenty dollar bill into his hand.
“God Bless you Ellie astore,” he thanked, “everything will work out grand for you.”
The Monsignor held the news from Ellie for almost a week. He paced the parlor, cursed the red haired waitress and only prayed for guidance when he began to hear voices. Spurred by whiskey he arrived at the big green house one frosty evening and broke the story. Yes, he sighed, it seemed her Murt Kelly was alive. The Monsignor read from his black notebook,
“According to the records of Saint Malachy's Church, Ballygale, his first wife, Ellen Bridgit Kelly neé Lowry-is dead and buried in Ballygale. That's you, Ellie...”
“Oh Holy Mother of Divine Jesus....”
“His second wife, Florence Agnes Kelly neé MacMahon is also buried there. Murt or Mortimer Kelly married his third wife, Mary Corless, on June 14, 1939.”
Ellie nodded. The Monsignor sighed and put away his book.
“Well that's that,” she muttered, backing into an armchair, “That's according to the records.”
The Monsignor nodded.
“And I'm supposed to be dead,” she said weakly, “but I'm alive.”
The clergyman frowned and stared at his fingers. He didn't want to get into any existentialist discussions. Bigamy sirens wailed down the chimney and he curled and flexed his toes.
“What do you make of it at all?” she asked in a wounded voice.
“Well,” he said quietly, “this is a very complicated situation-from a church point of view and also from a secular one.” He cleared his throat, crossed his legs and continued, “This is a situation where there is no right or wrong. There is no blame Ellie. You both thought each other was dead and you...naturally enough...made new lives for yourselves. Now a lot of water has gone under the bridge in the meantime and the current situation arises.”
“And I'm supposed to be dead and buried.”
“Yes. According to the church records.”
“Buried by a priest.”
“I presume so...”
“Wiped off the face of the earth. Gone.”
“Well, over there yes, but you're here.”
“I see.” she said sullenly.
The Monsignor was confident that God would look favorably on the situation and that all would be forgiven.
“Excuse me Monsignor,” she challenged, “Forgive who for what? What are you saying? Sure it's all the fault of the church. According to the church, I'm dead and buried.”
Ellie was angry and she sprang from the chair and pranced around the sitting room table. She needed a drink but didn't want to offer him one. The church had gotten enough out of her. She wished he would leave. With her back to him, Ellie stood by the bookcase and began to juggle encylopedias around the shelves. The Monsignor felt her ire.
“Ellie,” he said firmly, “I'm sorry to be the bearer of such news, but for God's sake, take it easy. Sit down a grá.”
Ellie didn't answer, just kept thumping books around until she felt like dumping the lot on top of him. Suddenly she bolted from the room and slammed the door, sent canaries shrieking, feathers and bird seed flying. The Monsignor tapped his knee softly. He heard the clatter in the kitchen. Nonsensical noise. Anger. Frustration. Heartbreak. He sighed, donned hat and coat and left the house quietly.
In two days Ellie lost her faith. The Church had slaved her soul, short changed her out of life. No proper Jesus or Blessed Virgin would stare dead pan, day after day, night after night for forty years, accepting prayers and knowing them to be off target. The prayers didn't even keep Murt on the straight and narrow. Getting married not once but twice after she had departed. The bastard, she spat, sweeping the floor so hard that she felt dizzy and had to sit.
“And me on my knees,” she panted, “for the best part of my life, pleading with God that...Murt Kelly could get to heaven...and he...hoppin' in an' out'a bed with every bitch in the country. The dirty bastard.”
She had thought life would begin again in Heaven and God alone knew how much she wanted Murt Kelly to be there too. That was the vision that kept her alive: that some sunny day she would meet him there. She used picture the scene in her prayers-she'd be walking along a bright road that went from one heavenly town to another, in the company of an angel or a saint and then they'd meet Murt Kelly. He would look the same as the first time she met him, black wavy hair, soft face and pogish grin. But now she saw two other women with him. Ellie wept and her tears washed away years of hope. In blind anger she doused the fire with holy water and vowed never to talk to God again.
Monsignor O'Connor dropped by a few evenings later with a half-pound of Irish breakfast tea. Ellie was courteous and ushered him into the sitting room where she had a smoking fire and clouds of smuts. He thought she looked bedraggled and it struck him that she might be drinking when he saw the untidiness of the room. Newspapers scattered on the floor, cups on the mantelpiece, a greasy dinner plate or two behind her armchair, television a little too loud. After five minutes or so of small talk, the Monsignor cleared his throat and said,
“Ellie, I was thinking about your situation in regard to what we heard from Ireland...”
He sighed, pursed his lips and said gravely, “In my opinion, the best thing to do is to forget about it.”
“Forget about it?”
“Let sleeping dogs lie as they say. Forget about it as if it never happened.”
“Well of course it never happened.” Ellie said, “I mean-I never died and he never died.”
The Monsignor frowned, but knew better than to voice his opinion. He nodded instead and said softly,
“You know, a situation like this could turn out very complicated, very complicated-for us all.”
Ellie glanced at him, wondering whether to cross swords or not.
“It's complicated already Monsignor,” she pointed.
Monsignor O'Connor nodded, his heart thumped and he prayed to the beat. He prayed that God and all the Saints in Heaven would bring Ellie to his way of thinking, guide her out of the minefield. He said,
“I know the whole affair has been a terrible shock to you, but God is good.”
“A terrible blow to get after forty years,” Ellie muttered.
There was silence for a while and then she whispered,
“But maybe the best thing to do is to offer it up to Our Lady of Fatima.”
He flinched with surprise. Thank God, he thought, she has come to her senses.
“You're a great woman Ellie,” the Monsignor said, genuine emotion in his voice, “God will have a special place in Heaven for you.”
Fifteen minutes later he stepped out of the green house like a frisky poodle. His prayers were answered and Ellie was detoured around multiple counts of bigamy, church hearings, paperwork, scandal-the works.
“God will have a special place in Heaven for you,” she mimicked, watching him cross the road to the church. How dare he pay her off with the promise of a special place in Heaven. She knew there was no Heaven.
A month or so later in Ballygale, Phoenix Kelly was in bed with a hangover when his wife Mary brought him the mail and thumped back to the shop without a word. The blues again, Phoenix sighed and panned the letters. Envelopes with windows -bills, bills, bills. A postcard from Lourdes, three letters from the County Council planning department and the plump letter from America. He frowned at the sender's address sticker, a tiny decal of the Stars and Stripes-Mrs. E. T. Lazurino. Someone who wants to trace ancestors, he thought, settled his spectacles and opened the airmail.
'Dear Murt, brace yourself because what I write will shock you...'
Phoenix stopped reading and quickly turned to the last page of the letter-two old photographs fell from the sheaf but he ignored them and stared at the writer's signature. Ellie Lazurino neé Lowry.
“Who the fuck is this?” he muttered, blood pumping to his head.
Then he looked at the photographs. Ellie, straight from the Thirties, standing beside a table in one, by a long black hearse in the other. Phoenix froze and stared at them for a long time. He trembled through the letter, thought he'd get sick, went to the bathroom and read it twice over again. Went up to the attic and looked at the photographs under the skylight. Ellie, short brown wavy hair, dark eyes and almond face.
His headache tightened. He was stumped, bewildered for the first time in years. He looked around the attic, not sure he was alone, and read the letter again, fighting away voices from the past.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered, “this is crazy...this is bananas.”
Phoenix went out the back door and hurried up the lane to Bridgey Looney's bar. He felt safe there, it was an old nationalist's shrine. Bridgey's husband Miko had been killed in the War, but she never re-married. Phoenix looked pale and Bridgey asked if he had been sick. The eyes were giving trouble, he said and ordered a brandy. Could be the wind, she offered, wind affected the eyes at this time of the year. Phoenix sniffled and looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. Bridgey gathered he was in no mood for chat and returned to the kitchen.
Phoenix fingered the letter in his pocket and shivered. It was all too shocking to be false. Just like she said she was shocked out of her wits to hear that he was alive. The photographs clenched it. The soft serene smile. And her ankles. Down the years he often thought of her ankles, slender and smooth. How does she look now? Would she know him if they met. He was shaking, sweating. Oh dear Jesus, this is bats. The woman on whose death he built a political dynasty was returning to haunt him. But maybe somebody was having him on. They did strange things in America. Blackmail? He tapped the counter for another drink and Mrs. Looney came from the kitchen.
“Same again, please Bridgey,”
“Alright. Are you feelin' any better Phoenix?”
“Not much Bridgey,”
“You poor cratur,” she muttered, serving his brandy, “Will you try a Goldflake?” she asked, offering him a cigarette.
“No thanks Bridgey. No, no.”
She wondered what was bothering him. He looks tormented, Bridgey thought, maybe it's the taxman.
Phoenix was imagining the scenario if Ellie returned to Ballygale.Resurrection of the woman whose brutal death was celebrated in song and legend. The local golf club bore her name, as did the football field, the new housing estate and girls school. Ellie Kelly was a heroine. They had a plaque erected to her memory at the site of the old house. What would he do? What would his family say? Uproar.
As if picking up his thoughts, Bridgey sighed,
“Ah there's very few of the old crowd left now.”
She looked out the window at the run-down town and reminisced about the old days. They were always fighting on for the bright new day, she whispered, but what came could never match the old ones.
“Give me another brandy please Bridgey,” he said shakily.
Phoenix brought a bottle home and drank in the attic until his wife Mary went to the church. Then he called his son Patrick, the Senator. The old man was drunk and rambled on the phone. Can this wait, Patrick interrupted, I'm about to leave for Dublin, the Senate sits in the morning. I wouldn't be calling you if it could, Phoenix slurred, I want you here in ten minutes.
Patrick charged into the house like a bull.
“Well,” he grunted, “what's up?”
“Get a drink and sit down,” said his father.
A few minutes into the story, Patrick sprang to his feet and shouted,
“This is ridiculous!”
“But it's true,” Phoenix nodded.
“No, no,” argued Patrick, “it's not the story. It's you. You've gone stark raving fucking mad from drink.”
“Sit down and shut up!” ordered Phoenix.
Patrick mopped his brow, lit a cigarette. Phoenix told his son he had never seen Ellie's remains, being in hospital with burns and gun shot wounds when she was laid to rest. Anyway, they said the body found in the debris was burned beyond recognition...
“Look,” Patrick cut in, “Ellie Kelly is dead. Dead, dead, dead. And the trouble is, you never came to grips with that fact.”
Phoenix raised his hand to interrupt his son,
“Let me continue,” over-ruled the Senator, “and now it's all catching up on you. It's driving you to drink and drink is driving you fucking mad.”
Phoenix shook his head and shouted,
“No, no, you're not hearing me. This is serious...”
“It's you who's not hearing me. Mama says you're drinking day and night. For Christ's sake man pull yourself together. Look at you! You're...you're like someone out of the fucking nut-house.”
Phoenix stared bleary eyed at his son, the man he coached and groomed for politics.
“Fuck off to your Free State Senate,” he mumbled and staggered upstairs to the attic.
Phoenix drank all the following day and the day after that again. Patrick called from the Senate every few hours but the old man was either out of the house or out of his mind with drink. He talked with his mother about getting Phoenix admitted to a private psychiatric hospital. Lock him up until he came to his senses. And do it quick before he disgraces us all.
After the fifth day of the binge, Mary bawled Phoenix out, screaming that he was a lunatic, a drunk, a womanizer, a useless sod. Exasperated, she took his clothes and shoes and went to lock them in the back room. He could crawl to the pub in his drawers she fumed. She searched his pockets, took his check book, snooped through his wallet, emptied it, dug deeper into the pockets and found the letter from America.
The doctor said Mary Kelly died of natural causes: her heart stopped. Phoenix was floored and Patrick went to pieces. The funeral was huge, long black government Mercedes nosed behind each other like crocodiles and ten priests and a bishop laid her to rest. The mourners said her death would bury Phoenix, there was nothing now between him and the bottle.
Monsignor O'Connor saw the estate agent's sign going up on Ellie's lawn and hurried across the road.
“Come in Monsignor,” she said, “I was just going to call you.”
“Ellie,” he said with surprise, “you're selling the house.”
“I am...too big for me Monsignor. Too big.”
“And where're you moving to?”
“Florida,” she said, throwing him a red herring, “I'm going to the sunshine. The weather here is very harsh Monsignor. Would you like a drop of tea.”
“Just a cup in my hand. Great God this comes as a complete shock to me.”
“It's a good time to sell,” Ellie said, walking away from him, “and a good time to move. I'll be settled in before I know it.”
“I still can't believe it,” the pastor said, following her around the kitchen like a toddler, “Ellie, you're not thinking about going to Ireland? Are you?”
“Well as sure as I'm standing here,” she swore Pos, “not in a million years.”
He squinted at the brochures for retirement villages scattered on the coffee table. Pictures of swimming pools, seniors on golfmobiles, seniors playing tennis, seniors dancing under dim lights.
“Well I don't know what to say,” he sighed, “isn't this all very sudden Ellie?”
“If I don't do it now, I'll never do it.”
Ellie sold her house on a Tuesday and a furniture buyer came by next day and offered her pittance for the contents. Take it or leave it, he said, let me know tomorrow. She expected someone from the bird fanciers club to call at four o' clock about the canaries and all afternoon she lingered by the cages holding back tears. The doorbell chimed and the birds burst into glorious song. Heavenly rolls, twirls, chirps and triplets.
“Mrs. Lazurino?” the grey haired man asked softly.
“Yes,” she said.
“I'm Murt Kelly.”
“Oh Jesus!” she gasped, “Murt!”
They met with open arms. Re-united lovers, their tears mingled. He caressed her head and forty years melted away in seconds.
“Ellie my darling,” he whispered.
“Ah Murt,” she wept, “I knew you wouldn't let me down. Come in, come in and close the door.”