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SHE couldn’t say exactly who the women were – his wife and daughter, she supposed. She was on her way back from the Shrine when she saw them, across the street, waiting, like she was, for the traffic lights to change. He was wearing shorts, and it struck her that his legs were very white, too white, nearly. And he was wearing sunglasses, and that made it all the more difficult to be sure. In fact, she wasn’t sure if it was him at all. And, if it was, who was he supposed to be? It was the shape of his head, the go of him. She definitely knew him from somewhere. But from where? And how?
The woman in the wheelchair would be the wife. Despite the heat, she had some kind of shawl wrapped round her shoulders. The younger woman, pushing the wheelchair, was tall, as tall as the man. She was wearing a large straw sunhat – you could barely see her face because of it.
It was late afternoon, the air thrown down like a warm damp blanket, just like on those July days of her childhood, when her mother would take to the bed with her headaches, and drink tonic water with, what her mother called, a smidgen of gin in it. From the landing window, the sky would stretch as far as the lake fields, where Father would be saving the hay. The flies would be up, coming in drunken swarms off the water. She wasn’t to tell Father about the gin, though he must have known, she realised now. And if he didn’t then, he knew later, that was for sure.
But the man…. He was wearing a wedding ring – she saw it gleaming as he gently placed his left hand on the woman’s shoulder, as they waited at the traffic lights. The woman looked up at him and said something and he bent down and kissed her on the lips. The other woman – the daughter, presumably – looked off into the distance, her hands resting on the back of the wheelchair.
And when they’d crossed the street, she glanced back and saw the three of them going into a restaurant. Well, she couldn’t very well follow them in. So, she made her way back to the hotel. The three weren’t staying in her hotel, she didn’t think. She would have seen them at breakfast, surely. Maybe that was just as well. Maybe he hadn’t noticed her yet and, if he had, would he recognise her? And, yet, maybe he had. Maybe he would say something to her later, when he got the chance, when the other two weren’t with him, of course. She wouldn’t want to cause any kind of embarrassment for anyone, for him, especially.
Back at the hotel, there was a bit of a commotion in the foyer. One of the men from reception was up on a step-ladder, a long broom made out of dried twigs in his hand. A small bird had flown into the hotel and he was trying to drive it out. A few people had gathered to watch. A starling had come into the room the night her mother had died. You’re here at last, thank God, she’d heard her mother whisper, I was waiting for you.
Going up to her room, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror in the lift. Sometimes you forgot until you came face to face with yourself in the mirror. Sometimes you forgot until you met someone and you saw the way they looked at you. You could see it in their eyes; pity and fear. People were like that.
The man was in his 60’s – 63, 64, maybe. There was this man she’d met at one of those dances years ago. But it wouldn’t be him, God no! She’d known he was married from the start; he was so very sheepish. They’d gone to the pictures together. She’d worn a red jacket and when your man met her in the cinema foyer, he’d grinned and said, “Red for danger.” Like fun! He’d had a few jars on him already, she could tell. The film was not one she would have chosen herself. He’d made it fairly clear from early on that he was only interested in the one thing; and she’d made it clear otherwise. At the end of the night, as they were leaving the pub, he said he’d ring her, but, of course, he never did. Good riddance to bad rubbish, anyway.
But it would come to her yet, his name, she was sure. She would pray for that. Though she had lost her good Rosary beads getting off the plane. It wasn’t that she was afraid of flying, as such, but she always said a decade of the Rosary during take-off and, again, just before landing, and it must have been in the rush and crush of disembarking that she’d dropped the blooming beads. She wouldn’t mind but they were good ones – wood, carved in Rome by the nuns, she had been led to believe – and had been given to her by her cousin, a member of the Sisters of Charity, who was dead these good few years. At least, she’d never have to explain to Sister D that she’d lost them. She had a blue set somewhere that had come from Knock. They were made of plastic and didn’t have the same feel them, of course, but they would have to do.
SHE tried tying her hair up before leaving the hotel the next morning. But it just didn’t suit her like that anymore. She did have a long neck; someone had told her that once. It was meant as a compliment, naturally. She tried out a few different outfits, but she couldn’t settle on anything. Finally, she went for the dark green cardigan (though, God knows, there was hardly any need for a cardigan in that heat) and a grey skirt. Never wear green, her mother used to warn; it was unlucky.
Matt Carty had complimented her on this green sweater she was wearing once; it showed off her eyes, he had said. Matt Carty – tall and skinny and working in the office above theirs in the town. Shy. The auctioneer’s girls, he used to call her and Annette. That was because they worked for Tuohy – James Tuohy, MIAV. Tuohy had pinched her bum once, in the early days.
Matt Carty always said it was a pity she hadn’t gone to secondary instead of the two years in the Tech. She hated that Tech, she told him. It smelt of damp clothes and boiled cabbage all the year round. Two hours of book-keeping every morning. Then typing and shorthand with Miss Stubbs. She was English, however she had ended up in the Tech. There was an air of danger about Miss Stubbs – maybe it was the way she walked, the sweet perfume. You only had to look at her to know she’d come from a pagan country.
Well, it definitely wasn’t Matt Carty, the man. He would be in his 70’s now. He had a brown Ford Cortina. Lovely leather seats. Not real leather – leatherette, it was called, or so Annette had told her afterwards.
At Mass in the Basilica, at Communion time, she kept an eye out for him, for them, but not a sign. She waited until the very last before hurrying up to receive. If he was there, he might have seen her. She always kept her eyes lowered coming back from the railings. She wasn’t one for surveying the congregation, the way some of them did. And she’d never got used to the hands business with the host.
In the afternoon, she joined the dozens of pilgrims praying in front of the Basilica, moving on their knees slowly towards it. The murmur of the prayers in the different languages, the brightness of the Basilica, white with heat, would put you in a daze. Every so often, someone would cry out and throw themselves forward, prostrate, on the warm stone paving, unlikethe coldness of the black slate flagstones on the floor of the kitchen at home when you fell on it, when you were knocked to it. She’d always managed to save herself; she’d learnt how. She’d never broken anything, not like her mother. She closed her eyes.
It was later. She stood out of the heat, watching as the crowds drifted across the great white space in front of the Basilica. Some would be going to the Shrine; others would be going for a bite to eat. She had an apple with her, in case she needed it later. Her mother had given her the apple.
She didn’t see the man and the two. Maybe they didn’t like the heat. He would have a lot on his plate with the wife. And the girl, the young woman, had a sort of brazen look about her that wouldn’t be of much help.
She became aware of a low sound from nearby. A man was standing, not far away, also watching the people, it seemed. Crouched at his feet, was a large black dog. The sound she’d heard was the dog, growling. Then the man bent down and said something to the dog and when he stood back up the leash was swinging idly in his hand. The growling of the unleashed dog crouched at his feet seemed to get louder. She was aware of the man’s eyes on her now, and when she looked at him, he smiled at her, she was sure. But she was afraid to move because of the dog, unleashed at his feet.
That night, she dreamt about the black dog. It had fire in its eyes because it had come from a place of fire. When she woke the next morning, she knew how it would happen. The dog had been sent by the Devil. She would be praying, on her knees, in front of the Basilica when the dog, freed of its leash, would leap on her, snarling. The man – the man whose name she couldn’t remember yet – would see this and come and fight off the dog and rescue her. That was how it would happen; it was clear as day to her now.
She found herself wandering the streets between the hotel and the Shrine, between the Shrine and the Basilica, and back again. “Take my hand, a leana,” a voice whispered in her ear. A leana. She knew then it was her mother, because she used to call her that, when she was being nice to her. A leana. That effin one, Father called her. One as effin useless as the other, he would say. The black floor of the kitchen would be cold as daybreak on your skin, winter and summer.
THE bells were ringing out for midday and she was sitting outside this little café she’d found. They served real tea in a pot there and scrambled eggs on toast and proper sandwiches and things like that. She had just ordered, when she looked over and there was the woman with the hat, sitting on her own, only a few tables away, fiddling with her phone. It was definitely her. But where were the others? she wondered.
Then her tea arrived and the next time she looked the woman was applying lipstick without the help of a compact mirror. It was the kind of careless thing young women did; it always looked silly and desperate, she thought. Then the woman took off her hat and began tying back her hair. She could get a better look at her now; she wasn’t nearly as young as she’d first thought – she could be in her 40’s, even. But she had a young look about her, with the hat and the clothes and the fancy mobile phone.
She was pouring herself more tea, when she saw the man, a short distance away, coming towards the café, his sunglasses pushed onto the top of his head. Not that it was much help. Maybe this was her chance to try to catch his attention. Excuse me, but don’t I know you from somewhere? As soon as they got talking, it would come to her, surely. And both of them would be embarrassed at not recognising the other earlier.
He would explain about his wife. And then wait and expect her to say something. Because he would definitely be able to tell. But she wouldn’t say a thing. She wouldn’t let on what they’d told her. Months – six, maybe. Nobody knew for sure. Do you think you’ll be able for the trip? One of them had asked her.
She would hurry up to him this minute. He would turn and look at her. But she stayed where she was, her hands in her lap, the tea waiting, not drunk, in the cup.
And then the woman in the hat saw him and waved to him and he went over to her table.
Then the woman in the hat saw him and waved to him and he went over to her table; that’s how it kept going round and round her head later. They sat there, chairs side by side, not even bothering to talk. Not everyone could see it – someone passing on the street wouldn’t notice – but she could, from where she was sitting. He had his arm around her waist. One of her hands was somewhere else, hidden.
Tommy Dwyer: that was who she’d been trying to remember. When she’d lived with her aunt, when she used to go to bingo with her aunt, Tommy Dwyer used to drive the bingo bus every Friday. There was no getting out of that bingo, Friday and Sunday; her aunt wouldn’t hear of it. But Tommy Dwyer would joke with her, and that made things not so bad. But this man was hardly Tommy Dwyer. No, not in a million years was he Tommy Dwyer. She’d heard he’d done well for himself afterwards; he had his own bus company now. He would probably be long married. He had a bit of a limp, she remembered noticing one night, after the bingo, as he crossed the road to meet them, grinning, from where he would have been over chatting with the other drivers and having a quick smoke of a fag.
It was dusk on the last evening when she saw them again, near the Basilica. They were moving through the crowd ahead of her. They looked no different – the man still in his shorts, the woman in the wheelchair, a pink shawl draped around her shoulders this time, and then, pushing the wheelchair, the other woman, still in the white straw hat, though there was hardly any need for a hat the hour that it was. She felt she should say something, but she just stood and watched and in a little while they had vanished into the darkening crowd. And for a few seconds afterwards, she could still see the woman’s straw hat, like the disc of a pale moon, suspended above it all.