A Reading Life Special Event
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
Harry Olbert was a wealthy man, like his father and grandfather before him. Importers of timber and exporters of livestock since the days of the sailing ships, the family had talent for making money and keeping ahead of the times. In Harry’s era, they expanded and diversified, becoming Irish distributors for a number of European gourmet food companies. He converted Olbert’s old derelict waterfront property into shops and apartments, and that made him another fortune. Then he went into semi-retirement and let his son Frank run the organization.
Robust and reserved, Harry had a healthy head of white backswept hair, a strong forehead and heavy dark-rimmed spectacles. Almost seventy, he’d been a widower fifteen years and had reverted to a bachelor lifestyle. He was fit for his age and dressed smart, in tweed jacket, cord trousers, plain shirt and striped tie. Harry drove a small silver Mercedes and lived alone in Glebe House, a Georgian mansion that overlooked the estuary and was hidden from the town by a shoulder of trees.
Harry had been an accidental businessman. A good pianist and in his youth, he had notions of becoming a jazz musician. Back then he fancied himself living in the great cities of Europe, having coffee with Picasso and gelato with Fellini. He got as far as London when his brother Nigel was killed in a car crash and Harry came back home to help in the family business. It was only to be for a while, and then he met Hilda Hamilton. They talked poetry and music and he fell in love, even though something about Hilda unsettled his soul. She was different to the other women he knew. High-spirited, passionate, and flamboyant, she could create a scene in a blink. Like the night she stormed from Lady Campbell’s ball, when the Lancaster sisters waved at Harry. He could have married Lily Lancaster. Maybe he should have. She bore her husband four sons and two daughters. He read it in her obituary. He thought about her more often than he thought about Hilda.
Beautiful and dreamy in their wedding album, Hilda Olbert had a breakdown on the second birthday of her only child, Frank. After that there was little relief: she was sporadically plagued by saints and demons, especially Lucifer, who had a girlfriend in the cellar. Their marriage was traumatic and Hilda spent much of it in exclusive psychiatric hospitals named after obscure saints.
“We have everything and yet we have nothing,” Harry used say to close friends. There was no arty sojourn in Paris or Barcelona, no hanging out in Greenwich Village or pilgrimage to Majorca to meet Robert Graves. Harry made business trips instead, and played the piano at home alone.
Nowadays he listened more than he played, and had eclectic tastes: Glenn Miller; Irish parlor classics; Charlie Parker; The Chieftains; Mary Coughlan; Maria Callas; Martin Hayes. He was a founding member of the local musical society and bankrolled the annual opera. It was his social platform, and a few years after Hilda died, he had a romance with the singer Bella Rourke, when she came to perform in the Pirates of Penzance. It shocked the town but everyone said he was entitled to a flutter. A short, sweet and discreet relationship, it alarmed his son Frank that the old hog could still go rooting.
The following year, the society performed Spanish Ladies and the exotic Louisa Garcia tangoed with Harry. The year after, it was Molly Seacomb from Fiddler on the Roof. In the library at Glebe House, Harry kept the programs from old shows, occasionally browsed through them, recalling lovers, reliving love. The past few seasons had been barren and he wondered if he was over the hill.
Harry sat on the audition board when the musical society were casting for Raggle Taggle Gypsies. That was the first time he saw Mandy Hailey, who auditioned for the role of Little Nancy. In her early thirties, she was petite with a shy face and dark hair, just short of her shoulders. Though she looked the part, they felt her voice didn’t suit. She was disappointed and asked if she could play violin in the orchestra. The board listened to her perform, and while she hadn’t great talent, they agreed she had enthusiasm and let her in to boost the strings and add color to the pit.
The society rehearsed in the town hall and sometimes Harry dropped by and stood at the back of the balcony. He always applauded when they finished and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ Occasionally he invited the team to Haran’s Hotel for refreshments and treated them lavishly. Sometimes a singsong caught fire and became a party. Great nights, especially when Harry whipped off his jacket and sat at the piano. One night he hammered out ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and they clapped and cheered and he sweated like a rock star and drank a gin and tonic to come down from the clouds. Mandy Hailey came to him and said, “Wow! That was fantastic!”
She sparked something in him and over the following weeks, a friendship developed between them. He heard she was new to the area and finding it difficult to get to know people. Divorced with two children, she was studying to be a lawyer and had a year to finals. Harry thought her cute, and loved how she tilted her head while she talked. Her voice was polite and hinted of the country, but he didn’t think her a farmer’s daughter; more likely she came from a horse-breeding family. He wondered if they might become romantic, considering their age difference.
Mid-way through rehearsals, Mandy told Harry that she found the scores difficult and was considering quitting the orchestra. The news alarmed him and he offered to tutor her to bring her up to speed. Next afternoon she came to Glebe House and they went through the pieces. It was laborious and he thought her more interested in chatting than learning. They had tea in the library by a log fire and Mandy said, “Thanks Harry, I think I’ll get the hang of it.”
They practiced twice a week and ‘The Gypsy March’, ‘Nell and Sally’ and so on thumped through the manse. Mandy always had tea and was hesitant to leave. Glebe House enchanted her with its high ceilings and tall windows, the old oil paintings on the wall and the maritime antiques in the hall, the stillness and the calmness of the great rooms and the views of the estuary and the ocean beyond. Her scent lingered long after she’d left and Harry savored it, singing arias to his dreams.
Days before Raggle Taggle was due to open, Mandy arrived to Glebe House unannounced. She was distressed, and told Harry that her mother had taken ill while on a visit to London and she had to go there immediately. He asked if he could help in any way and she said,”I hate to admit this, but I’m a little tight for money…”
“Would five hundred be enough?”
He wrote her a check and she hugged him and whispered,
“That’s great. You’re an angel Harry.”
Apart from Harry Olbert, nobody really missed Mandy from Raggle Taggle Gypsies. She wasn’t there for opening night and the whole performance was an anti-climax for him. He didn’t enjoy the post-show bash and left without doing a party piece. She returned a week after the musical closed and Harry fussed around her when she visited Glebe House. They had tea in the library and he told her about the performance and how she was missed from it.
“It was flat!” he exclaimed, “I could only take one night.” Mandy smiled and hugged her knees.
“Oh it’s great to be back, Harry. And thanks for your help, it made a great difference to Mum that I was there for her.”
She said she’d just started work in a law office and wondered if the loan repayment could be put off until she got settled in. Harry said certainly and she fawned,
“God Harry, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Mandy visited him once or twice every week, occasionally with her children. Shelia and Sean were four and six and though they annoyed Harry with their constant bickering and clinging to their mother, he always gave them money for chocolate. He asked her advice on the house and installed a dishwasher as she suggested. On fine days they pottered in the garden and Harry felt decades younger, watching her bend over and plant seedlings.
She made dinner at Glebe House on Easter Saturday night and her cooking was so fine, it surprised Harry: he put it down to good breeding and she went higher in his estimation. They had ginger pears and cream by the fire in the sitting room and talked about the strangeness of life, trading tit-bits from their marriages. Harry showed her photos of Hilda; Mandy broke down telling how she was abandoned for another woman. He dried her tears and held her in his arms.
“I’d better get back,” she sighed, “I forgot about the baby-sitter.”
Frank Olbert’s office overlooked the harbour, and he stared out the window and into deep grey water while his wife Orla related the local gossip: a young woman was regularly seen visiting Glebe House. She had also heard a joke in the supermarket about Harry’s china doll.
“There’s no fool like an old fool.” she said, “You have to talk to him.”
After a week of nagging from Orla, Frank took his father to lunch on the pretence of a business chat. Bald and Buddhist, Frank was tall and nervous like his mother, and he sometimes had her stammer. He carried a small photo of her in the breast pocket of his jacket for protection. While Harry stared blankly at a spreadsheet, Frank leaned forward and said, “By the way, what’s going on between you and that lady?”
“That. . .that lay-lady who visits you.”
“She’s just a friend.”
“She’s a lawyer.”
“Be extra careful.”
After a short consultation back at the office, Frank and Orla decided to contact a private investigator.
Mandy came to Glebe House for Saturday night supper and Harry thought her anxious. When he asked if something was bothering her, she said her husband had suddenly turned up and rented a flat nearby.
“Good God,” muttered Harry
“He’s seeking more access to the children. Lucky I work in a law office,” she said with an ironic laugh.
Harry nodded, topped up her wine. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’re doing great. Be sure to let me know if things get hairy.”
“Thank you Harry,” she whispered, “you’re a very good friend.”
She worried that she wasn’t able to see him as often as she liked. Work was hectic and most nights she was studying. Plus the car was unreliable. She was on the lookout for a new one; that would free her up a bit more.
“Anyway, I’d better get back and let the babysitter home.”
Harry hugged her goodnight in the hall and gave her a gentleman’s kiss on the cheek.
Olberts were offered the Irish agency for Arbano coffee on the same day that Frank heard from the private investigator. He was a bundle of nerves and went to meditate in the boardroom. Orla took control and after an hour of hard thinking, she called Harry and asked that he take an interest in the Arbano opportunity.
“You know more about coffee than anyone,” she said, “and you love Italy.”
Hearing the strain in her voice, Harry got wary but played along. He asked a few financial questions and wondered about demographics. Orla brought samples to Glebe House and later, Harry and Mandy tasted them and judged them to be haute-cafe. Next morning he called the office and spoke to his daughter-in-law.
“Excellent coffee,” he said, “I was particularly impressed by their espresso. With the interest here for cappuccinos, lattes and God knows what, I’d say we have a winner.”
“Good,” she said, “they’re anxious to get moving on the deal. Fancy a few days in Italy?”
“Sure,” he laughed and Orla booked himself and Frank on a flight to Milan to meet the Arbano family.
Harry spoke Italian reasonably well and did most of the negotiating. Frank threw in occasional comments and wrote the fine print to a deal that made everyone happy. To celebrate, Don Arbano took them to Vito’s for dinner and Harry ended the night waltzing with a countess on a marble floor.
While in Italy, Frank had planned a serious conversation with his father about Mandy Hailey. Orla and himself had role-played the scene several times in the office. Frank would be firm and lay it on the lie that the woman was trouble. . .But he kept putting it off. Things keep getting in the way, he told Orla on the phone. Do it, she ordered. Finally, on the plane home Frank said to Harry, “I have news for you. She’s not a lawyer, you know.”
“The Hailey lady. She’s not a lawyer, she’s a cook.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The lay...lay…lady who calls to you, she was a cook in Harold’s Restaurant in Kellystown. They hey-hey fired her.”
“Where did you hear that bullshit?”
“Somebody told Orla.”
Harry opened his mouth to reply but didn’t. His face paled and he sat back into the seat, lips quivering.
Soon as he arrived home, Harry Olbert called Jonathan Harold and asked about Mandy Hailey. A great cook, he heard, but a pathological liar. Before she worked at Harold’s, herself and the husband had a restaurant in Ballycrawford called Sizzle. Dozens of diners were defrauded in a credit card scam and the husband got jail. Harry stilled. “Are you sure it’s the same woman?” he asked incredulously.
“Does she drive a black Ford Escort with a dent on the bonnet?”
“She does,” Harry replied.
After the call he sat down and fumed like an overheated engine. Sweat pimpled his forehead and his glasses steamed up. What the hell is she at? He thought to phone her. No, better confront her in person. All that day and night his heart thumped and he walked in and out of empty rooms in Glebe House, just like the way he walked around on the night Hilda went into labor.
Mandy phoned to welcome him home from Italy but he couldn’t talk to her. His breathing got faster and he made the excuse that he had visitors and ended the call abruptly. Next morning she rang again and he said he was just leaving the house and would speak to her later. He went downtown and bought a call monitor. He thought about asking his lawyer to write to her at work and demand immediate repayment of the loan. That would shake her. What was the name of the law firm? Foster & Gallen? Frost & Mallan? He couldn’t remember. She said it was someplace up north. It would come to him.
She phoned several times over the following fortnight, but Harry didn’t answer. When she drove up the avenue he went to the bathroom and stayed there until he heard her car turn in the gravel and leave. Eventually she stopped calling and Glebe House became quiet. Harry’s routine returned: a spot of gardening on fine days, lunch at the hotel, afternoon nap; a couple of hours watching television after tea; walk on the strand on Sunday.
Though he vowed never again to let Mandy inside his house, she slipped into his mind every now and then, and he couldn’t stop her. One night while drinking alone at home, he was tempted to phone her, just for a chat. Maybe, he reasoned — maybe the scam was all her husband’s doing and she was an unwitting associate. Maybe everyone’s wrong about her. Worse case scenario, she’s a classic poacher turned gamekeeper.
After a while she was in his mind before he woke in the morning and sat there all day. He lost interest in the garden and moped around Glebe House, expecting his phone to ring, waiting for her car to come up the drive. It took great will power not to call her and he was glad of the distraction when the Arbano people came over to launch the coffee in Ireland. They played golf, went to a mediaeval banquet, sang arias late at night in the hotel. He was sick for a week after they left.
The investigator reported Mandy hadn’t visited Harry in over two months and that her husband had moved in with her. Orla and Frank high-fived each other and booked a week’s holiday in Vitalis Spa. The day they left, Harry was playing the piano in Glebe House when the doorbell chimed. It was Mandy and he was rattled for words.
“Hello stranger,” she greeted, “I thought you had emigrated on me.”
She looked pretty in a short denim skirt and black tights and invited herself inside.
“I got you a little something in Dublin when I was at the High Court.”
She handed him a small gift and he opened it standing in the hall. A CD of Bing Crosby’s greatest recordings.
“Thanks very much Mandy. I don’t know what to say.”
Beads of sweat dimpled his nose as she chattered that it was great to see him and how well he looked.
Harry made two martinis in the sitting room and she did most of the talking. Work was going well and a suitable arrangement had been made with her husband in regards to the children. Of course her car was on its last legs but otherwise, life was good. Harry nodded, smiled, and peeped over the top of his glasses. He thought to hint about the stories he’d heard, but shuffled the notion to the back of his mind for the moment. She hugged her knees and he smiled and made two more martinis. “And how have you been Harry? I really missed seeing you.”
“Oh I’ve been busy, busy.”
“We could both do with a night out.”
The Boathouse was Harry’s favorite hideaway. Down the coast about twenty miles, it was a quiet, discreet eatery with eight tables and an expensive menu. Mandy said it felt real romantic and glanced around the room to see who else was there; she didn’t recognize anybody. He suggested the beef Wellington for two and ordered a bottle of Chateaux de Roche. They had lobster salad and champagne to start and Harry felt life in his groins for the first time in years.
While Frank and Orla were away, Harry and Mandy saw each other daily. They dined out and drank brandy and champagne, smoked cigars and whispered to each other like new lovers. One night she was too drunk to drive home from Glebe House and had to sleep in the guest room. Harry lay awake wondering if the time was yet right to be more intimate. He no longer thought about the stories he’d heard—or the money he was owed—but hungered instead for the warmth of her body. He began to conjure up exotic places where they might experience unfettered romance. He saw Mandy and himself in Hawaiian shirts and shorts, walking on a deserted white beach at sunset. Dining under the moon, palm trees, mellow candles and smooth wine. The next time she dropped-by he said, “I’m thinking about going on a holiday. South Seas. . .Fiji maybe...would you consider coming along?”
“Ah Harry! That’s a lovely idea.”
“I’ll take care of the cost.”
“You’re so good. I’d love to but it would be difficult with work and the kids. And I have to try and put a bit of money aside for a new car.”
Seeing disappointment on his face, she added,
“But maybe we could go somewhere for a weekend.”
Mandy saw a car she liked and asked Harry if he’d check it out with her. They drove to the showroom in his Mercedes, and she wore a grey pin-stripe suit and carried a slim black briefcase. The car was a silver Honda station wagon with low mileage and priced eight grand. Harry thought it good value and it handled well during the test drive. But he felt it didn’t suit her: it was too big or something and she looked like a pixie behind the wheel. “Think over it for a day or two,” he suggested.
“Shouldn’t I start the loan process anyway, just in case?”
“I suppose it can do no harm.”
That night she cooked dinner in Glebe House and he dusted off a bottle of vintage wine. She spoke about work and some of the interesting cases she was dealing with.
“Who do you work with again?”
“Harris & Finch. Did I not give you my card?”
“I don’t think so.”
She searched in her briefcase for a business card, but couldn’t find any. Shrugged and said,
“So you think the Honda is a good deal, Harry?”
Diplomatic as he could be, he tried to talk her away from the car. She looked dreamily at him as he spoke and he knew her mind was made up.
“If I got a bank loan, could you go guarantor for me?” she asked.
Harry frowned, had a sip of wine. The old stories churned in his head. She already owed him five hundred pounds and there was no talk of repayment.
“I’m sure we could work something out,” he said.
“Ah Harry, you’re great.”
They moved into the sitting room to watch a Woody Allen movie on TV. It bored Harry and he drank to pass the time. Mandy snuggled against him on the couch and when the film was over she whispered,
“The reason I want a new car so badly is that I have a recurring nightmare of my ex driving into the river with the kids in my old banger. Does that make any sense to you Harry?”
He wrapped his arms around her and she snuggled closer.
“I feel safe with you, Harry,” she whispered.
He kissed her on the head and she turned her face to meet his lips.
Harry kissed her up the stairs and into his bedroom. She moaned when his hands crept under her blouse and they lay back on the bed. Passionate and hot, Harry faltered in the final lap. He couldn’t couple and after a few attempts, gave up. They slept back-to-back and she was first up in the morning and brought him coffee in bed.
“Thanks for taking care of me,” she said.
“I can do better.”
“You were great.”
After she left, Harry relived the night, touch by touch. It bothered him that he was not able to make love. Would she mention to anyone that life force had left him? Was it a sign of death, he wondered, or was it just lack of practice? He hadn’t slept with a woman for nearly five years.
Harry took Mandy to Kinsale for a gourmet weekend and though they dined and danced like newlyweds, there was little magic in the bedroom. Awake till dawn with fears of impotency, Harry aged ten years in two nights. Returning home he apologized for his lack of spirit, joking that he wasn’t as young as he thought. There was resigned sadness in his voice and Mandy rubbed his knee and said not to worry, it was enough for her to be with him. Anyway, if he wanted, his condition could be helped by medication. There were all sorts of drugs for that now, she told him.
“Christ, I can’t walk into Doc Hogan and tell him I want medicine to help me perform. I don’t want anyone to know my business.”
“Maybe I could get it for you. A good friend of mine is a doctor in Dublin.”
The weather changed next day and Harry felt low and lonely, pestered by something beyond his grasp. He wandered aimlessly around Glebe House, haunted by memories of Hilda. Outside the beech leaves were curling into gold and undertaker crows walked the lawn, cawing autumnal mantras. Harry was thinking about a holiday in the sun with Mandy when his bank manager phoned.
“Mr. Olbert, we noticed you signed a letter of guarantee for a loan application by a Ms. Mandy Hailey. As you are a valued client of the bank, I should tell you that we’re concerned. Ms. Hailey has serious credit problems.”
Harry eased into a chair.
“There’s some mistake here Tom, I never signed anything. I mean, I know the lady. . .but no, no, I never signed any forms for a loan.”
“Well someone does a remarkably good impression of your signature, Mr. Olbert.”
“I don’t know anything about this Tom.”
“The bank will take the appropriate action in that case, Mr. Olbert. In light of this, you might want to examine your checking account and bring any irregularities to my attention.”
“Thank you Tom.”
That evening, Harry was reading ‘Seven Secrets of the Samurai’ in the library when Mandy came around. She was dressed in a tight ruby skirt and a pale blouse that showed modest cleavage. Displaying a big bunch of flowers and a bag of groceries, she announced that she’d be cooking him dinner, they’d cause to celebrate. She brought the groceries into the kitchen and arranged the flowers in two vases. Then she hugged Harry and whispered.
“Can we have a drink please? I’ve great news.”
“Sure. Let’s go to the sitting-room.”
She sat on the couch and Harry made martinis. He would let her get comfortable with a couple of drinks and then confront her. He had the script in his head: Mandy, you’ve been playing games with me. There’s no such law firm as Harris & Finch in this country. You’re not a law student, you’re an unemployed cook. You’ve forged my signature...
“I’m going to buy the Honda,” she said, “I put a deposit on it. I’ve a meeting my bank manager in the morning. So, fingers crossed.”
“And! My friend sent me the medicine for you.”
Harry’s mind changed script. Maybe he could mix business and pleasure. Stave off the execution. Play her game. Let the bank manager wield the hatchet, the morning after. She took a little bottle from her handbag and handed it to him.
The label on the container read: Take one as required. Harry peered at the pills and wondered how they worked. Would they affect his heart? What would a samurai do?
“It’s OK to take them with a drink or two,” Mandy said.
He unscrewed the cap and spilled a few into his palm. They looked like purple M & M’s and reminded him of the Nins that Doctor Hogan used give his late wife when she needed sedation.
“And Harry, I was thinking, now that my car problem is sorted, maybe we could go on that holiday. It would be nice to spend Christmas in the sun.”
He peered closer at the tiny writing on the pills: WIN. Or was it NIN? His sight blurred and his hands trembled. He stared at Mandy and awkwardly rose from the armchair.
“Go away,” he gasped, “Get out. . . “
“Harry! What’s wrong Harry?”
She was distracted by noise outside and through the window saw a white car arrive. Orla and Frank. Footsteps crunched on the gravel and Mandy cried,
“Quick Harry! Throw the pills into the fire, quick! Oh Jesus…”
End of Guest Post