Tales from the Old Country, short story by Eileen Casey
Eileen Casey is originally from the midlands, living in South Dublin. Awards include a Sunday Tribune/ Hennessy Literary Award (Emerging Fiction) and A Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. Poetry, fiction and non-fiction is widely published in literary journals and anthologies. Collections include poetry (New Island/AltEenTs) and fiction, non-fiction (Arlen House). One of her short stories appeared in Faber & Faber’s ‘All Over Ireland,’ edited by Deirdre Madden. Her work is also broadcast on Sunday Miscellany and Living Word. Over twenty-five years she has facilitated writing groups (for both adults and children) in South Dublin and further afield. In 2006, she set up a community press, Fiery Arrow, which has enabled several writers to make their debut. Fiery Arrow has also published a number of community-based anthologies. The most recent, ‘Circle & Square,’ is the winner in its category of 2017 Carousel Aware Prize for Independent Authors.
Once inside her hotel room, the thrum of the vending machine and ice-maker becomes less intense; yet the sound is lodged in Rose 0’Brien’s head. Her brother settles into one of two plush, over-sized armchairs and again, she notices how heavy-set Sean has become. Rose hands him a bottle of Long Island Pale Ale and an opener. He uncaps it with one swift jerk and drinks deeply.
‘You could fit half our old street into this bed,’ she observes, her small, white hands smoothing out the satin quilt. ‘Remember that family … Mahoney? You must remember them. So many kids squashed into that two up, two down. It’s a miracle anyone got any rest.’
‘Ole man Mahoney didn’t, that’s for sure,’ Sean quips, his Southern drawl more pronounced than Rose can recall. He leans towards the window and lifts the heavy voile curtain a couple of inches.
‘Busload’s pulled in. For Mikey’s wedding, most like.’ He drops the curtain and shifts about in his chair, scowling at the floor and hunching his shoulders. ‘God Rose, I never thought I’d still be in the US of A after all these years. It wasn’t the plan, that’s for sure.’
Again, Rose is conscious of the thrumming from the corridor but she doesn’t refer to it. ‘It must be ten years … at least?’
‘The longest time yet. Mikey got the best education money could buy…and then his mother’s funeral didn’t come cheap neither. Sean holds the bottle up towards the light to see how much beer is left.
‘I guess trips home were not a priority. How fast the years have flown though.’
‘Beer’s the one thing this country’s still good for, God Bless America,’ he says, ignoring her reference to the passing of time.
‘I’m serious about that piece of real estate Rose. Though you’ve paid it no mind.’ He looks directly across at her. ‘Damn if it’s any use to me.’
‘Want the other one?’ she asks, nodding towards the complimentary welcome bag on the bureau. She wonders how a piece of ground four feet across and nine feet deep has become real estate?
‘I’m not asking a cent for it, if that’s the ways you’re thinking.’ He waves the empty bottle towards her for emphasis.
‘Here, you might as well have it,’ she says and takes the second bottle from the bag.
‘Might as well, it’s five dollars a pop in the bar.’ He twists off the cap. This time, a rush of frothy bubbles spills over the rim and he wipes it away with the back of his hand.
‘Cheapskate.’ She smiles to take the harm out of it.
‘Will I put on Fox News for you?’ Ordinarily, she wouldn’t dream of turning on the television set but anything to avoid this issue of ‘real estate’ which Sean first mentioned earlier in The Plumbago Bar and Grill, five floors below. He’d leaned his elbows on the table and held his knife and fork upright like soldiers to attention; the way he had as a young boy.
‘I bought a burial plot many years ago,’ he’d explained, his voice rising a little above the hum of conversation. ‘I always thought my bones would rest near the folks’ grave… but that’s not goin’ to happen. And now that Stacy’s planted here…well, long story short, it’s yours if you want it Rose.’ He saw the surprised look on her face.
‘It don’t mean you’re about to snuff it girl, hell no,’ he said hastily. It comes to us all…eventually… no doubt about that.’
She’d sneaked a look at the adjacent tables but the other diners seemed totally oblivious to their conversation. The fact that Sean had such a burial plot was news to her. And to have held onto it for so long was certainly puzzling. In one way, however, it made sense. The emigrant’s safety net, she’s heard it called.
Rose is tempted to turn down the air conditioning but Sean might complain. Although he’s visibly perspiring, she feels chilled. It occurs to her now that not once the whole evening has he bothered to ask if she already has a plot. For all he knows, she might wish to be cremated and have her ashes strewn across the sea.
Would you prefer CNN? She takes her cardigan from the closet and buttons it up to her neck.
‘Nah… if it’s all the same to you Hon. He doesn’t appear to notice the flood of colour staining Roses’ cheeks as she remembers snatches from their earlier conversation.
‘It’s not as if you are going down with anyone in particular,’ he’d persisted, blunt as ever. When he’d lowered his knife and fork, they clattered against his plate so loud she thought it would break.
Rose hears a rap on the door and moves quickly to open it, relieved at Michael and Theresa’s arrival.
‘Hi Aunt Rose, can we come in?’
‘Of course’ she says to her nephew and nods to her sister. Theresa immediately sits on the bed while Rose views the room through Theresa’s gimlet eye.
‘I haven’t opened the cookies yet … or the potato chips,’ Rose says, pointing to the complimentary guest bag. If anyone would like some coffee…,’ the words tumble out of her mouth in a rush.
‘Quit fussin,’ Sean says lightly, ‘we’re fine.’
‘I can’t believe we didn’t bring our own teabags!’ Theresa says, kicking off her sling-back evening shoes. They fall with a soft thud on the plain beige carpet.
‘Once tomorrow is over, I’m in flat soles for life, I swear.’ Rose looks at Theresa’s bunions remembering when she herself once wore stilettos which were impossibly high and pointy-toed.
As Theresa rotates her ankles, Rose begins to wonder if she knew anything about Sean buying the burial plot. They’d always been thick as thieves, even as children. On one of his regular visits home in those earlier years, Theresa might very well have accompanied him through the spiked iron gates of the cemetery. The route to the family burial plot would have taken them along an avenue lined with tall fir trees and leafy sycamores. Then down the other side of the hilly slope that screened off the view of the town; their footsteps crunching on the gravel stones.
‘Looks like I’ll be drinking alone then,’ Sean says.
I personally prefer a ball of malt. What are the chances at the wedding Michael?’ Theresa says and winks at the young man. Theresa had arrived into John F. Kennedy, armed with her full quota of duty free whiskey. Michael winks back and gives her the thumbs up. Rose looks closely at her nephew, his tall, lean frame reminding her of Stacy’s elegance. Michael bore no resemblance to his father and certainly had none of Sean’s rougher edges. Educated at Manhattan University, there’s barely a trace of Southern in his voice.
‘You’ve been to the barber’s,’ she finally observes. Without his beard he seems so much younger, vulnerable somehow.
‘Guilty as charged Aunt Rose,’ Michael replies.
‘How’s Diana? Rose asks then. ’She’ll make a stunning bride.’
Michael smiles. ‘There’s no denying that Aunt Rose.’
‘And her folks are pretty damn decent people.’ Sean beams with pride at his only son.
‘You did real good Mikey,’ he says. All three fell silent.
‘I wish those machines weren’t so loud,’ Rose says after a few minutes. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t complain.
‘It don’t bother me none,’ Sean says and Theresa and Michael both shrug their shoulders.
‘They’re on all the corridors,’ Michael says but maybe your room is closer than ours,’ he adds kindly. ‘You can always ask to be moved.’
Rose shakes her head, sorry now that’s she’s mentioned it at all.
‘We shouldn’t stay up too late tonight. We’ll need our beauty sleep and tomorrow will be long enough … though nothing like the weddings at home, isn’t that right Michael?’ Theresa says.
‘That’s right. Here, we usually finish up around midnight.’ Michael forces back a yawn.
‘They’re only getting fired up in Ireland then,’ Sean says, ‘weddings and funerals are always good for a shindig.’
Again, it comes to Rose. An image of Theresa and Sean strolling through the cemetery. A bleak place no matter what the season; a place where so many people she’d known throughout her life were laid to rest. And plenty of secrets buried with them too she’d bet. A surge of anger shoots through her. Of course Theresa knew about the plot. She was probably the one who recently suggested to Sean that Rose should have it … now it was of no use to him.
‘It was some street where we grew up, wasn’t it?’ Sean says. We could be here all night tellin’ you stories Mikey. “
Michael glances at his father and rolls his eyes.
“A lot of things went by without much notice,’ Sean adds and Theresa nods agreement.
‘Not everything went unheeded,’ Rose says, resentment tightening her mouth
‘I hope your father hasn’t sentimentalised our childhood Michael.’
‘Your aunt was always a softie,’ Sean says, directly to Michael, ignoring the coldness in Rose’s blue eyes. ‘Even when it came to stray kittens. She was forever bringin’ ‘em home.’
‘Better than what some neighbours did to them. Who can forget that? Lifting the grid over the drain for one thing…and letting them stagger blindly to their death.’
‘Gross,’ Michael says, scrunching up his face in disgust.
‘No more of that kind of talk,’ Theresa says, rising from her chair. ‘Mikey will think we’re barbarians in the old country.’
‘We’re back a ways here son,’ Sean says, ‘Rose may be getting things mixed up.’
‘No. I don’t think I’ve got that wrong,’ Rose says, ‘I remember lots of things from a long ways back.’ She looks at Sean squarely.
‘Time to put ourselves to bed,’ Theresa says, forcing her swollen feet back into her shoes.
‘A lot worse goes on in the world than drowning unwanted kittens,’ Sean says as Michael helps him out of the chair.
Rose can feel her heart racing. What might happen if she were to mention to Mikey the man who’d wanted to marry her all those years ago? Jack Hourihan. Only Theresa and Sean had hounded him away because they said he wasn’t good enough for their baby sister. How would they talk their way out of that?
‘Man, I’m feelin’ it now,’ Sean says and stretches.
‘Yes, definitely time to say goodnight,’ Theresa agrees.
‘Think I’ll turn in myself, I’m bunched.’ Michael can scarcely hide his relief that he can escape the growing tension in the room.
Rose opens the door and both Michael and Theresa hug her. ‘Night and sleep tight,’ they say in unison. Theresa’s embrace is a little stiff however and she avoids Rose’s gaze.
On his way out, Sean squeezes her arm. She thinks she sees his eyes glisten. But surely not? He’s never been sentimental.
Rose locks her door then lowers the air conditioning; She brushes her teeth and creams off her make-up, barely glancing in the bathroom mirror. Once undressed, she quickly pulls on her pyjamas and takes from her handbag the blue plastic plugs she’d bought in the Shopping Mall earlier. She removes their wrapping and inserts them into her ears. Once under the cover, the bed seems even larger than the night before and Rose cannot rid herself of the images crowding her mind. Jack Hourihan’s handsome face swims before her followed by Sean and Theresa, smugly mapping out her future. And now, all these years later, deciding her final resting place. Again, resentment makes her body ache.
Despite the ear plugs, the noise from the corridor filters to her. Rose pushes the plugs deeper, holding them in with her hands until the sound becomes a dull throb. Eventually, she falls asleep but her dreams take her along the gravel path, among the rows of ended lives.
© Eileen Casey