Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Belfast Girl by Freedom Chevalier

During Northern Ireland's Troubles, a teenage girl's life suddenly changes; by Freedom Chevalier.

1978 November

November hung damp and heavy about her shoulders, as Kathleen pulled her collar up. The double knit muffler she wore, her mother's Christmas gift to her last year, provided futile defense against the wind's frost-tipped claws. She had just turned the corner when sleet began to slap down around her. It would be a solid sheet of ice by morning. She could see the warm amber light in the front window, still a good fifteen minute walk away. She'd be soaked through to the bone, by the time she got there. The worst thing about working at the pub, she mused, they were all too drunk to give a ride home. Not that it stopped them from offering most nights.

She felt the thin crust of ice shatter as she stepped in the puddle. The biting water crested her ankle high boots, drowning her foot in a frigid slush.

Shite.

This was fast becoming the perfect end to a horrible day. Bad tips. Piss poor weather. And the frigging soup she'd spilled on her new blouse. Of course.

Kathleen paused a moment on the front step, under the porch and watched the icy snow pelt around her with increased intensity. She'd made it home, just in time. Finally, my night is beginning to turn around.



It was nearing 9 o'clock when Mary heard the heavy knock on the door.

"On such a rainy night, Lord bless us all," she muttered as she went to it. She dried her work worn hands on her apron before opening the wooden door. Eamonn and Padraig, her neighbours one lot over, faces stained by blood and fatigue, met her questioning eyes. Eamonn could only hold Mary's stare for a moment, before he slumped against the door-frame, and shook his head softly.

"Kathleen, get your brother and sister. Go upstairs," Mary ordered, "now!" Kathleen thought for a moment of arguing her right to stay and help with whatever new trouble there was, but the brisk tone of Mary's voice eliminated any opportunity for refusal. Kathleen grabbed her brother Rauri by the hand, and went to gather Wellynd from the table. "Ma says to come upstairs now."

"But I'm making cookies," Wellynd defended.

"Not now you're not. Come on." Kathleen said. Taking the defiant Wellynd by one wrist, and with Rauri still securely held in the other, she tugged and dragged them upstairs under Mary's distant gaze. Eamonn and Padraig had come inside, just, and the door was closed behind them. Eamonn's eyes met Kathleen's and he dropped his head deeper. He ran his hand, swollen and broken, through his wet, dark hair. Kathleen was unsure whether the doorframe was holding Eamonn up or the other way around. Nothing seemed solid at the moment. She reached the first landing, blocked from the view of the doorway, and tossed loose her grip on the small wrists of her prisoners. She approached her room, the first at the top of the hall, and ushered them in.

"You can play in here, if you're quiet," Kathleen offered. Never allowed to enter her room, it was an easy sell to the twins who were already beginning to sneak peaks into her laundry hamper and cosmetics drawer.

"I mean it now, not a peep. If Ma hears you we'll all be done for. Do you hear me Wellynd?" Although identical in appearance to her slightly older twin, Wellynd was the more responsible, mature one of the duo. She seemed to be able to grasp the reality of the grown up world much too easily; an adult before she was ever a child. Such were the lives of Mary O'Riordan's daughters, Kathleen mulled.

Wellynd looked up at her big sister with focus and determination and nodded her agreement, pressing a chubby finger against her lips for emphasis. Kathleen smiled. Wellynd went to Rauri and soon the two were lost to the sparkling bangles and cheap fashion jewelry on the dresser.
Kathleen was careful to close the door gently. She made her way back to the landing. She was careful to avoid the plank outside the door that squeaked whenever she tried, without success, to sneak past her parents room when even just a few minutes past curfew. She bent down to hear better, the guardrails cool against the skin of her arms.

"Eoghan's gone, Mary. They tried. They all tried. They even had an ambulance bring him in, but... but..." Eamonn ran out of words. Padraig could do nothing but pull Mary to him, his shirt soaked to the skin in a bath of rainwater and Eoghan's blood. At first Mary struggled to free herself, failing to understand what they meant. Gone? Where had he gone? He couldn't go anywhere; that was ridiculous. They had no money to spare on going. What was Eamonn talking on about? He'd been drinking, no doubt. You could smell it on him. And in this weather, too. And Padraig should know better than to be acting like this. Him holding on to her like this, what if Eoghan were to come in. He could be jealous sometimes. And he'd have been to drinking, too. But no, they said Eoghan was gone. Gone.

"Gone?" Mary finally questioned, her voice faintly rising above Padraig's embrace.

Padraig held her tighter. She could feel the floor give way beneath her, her legs no longer able or willing to support her; her body incapable of being on its own.

Kathleen watched in horror as her mother fell to the floor, broken into pieces she knew would never quite fit back together again.

Kathleen slowly gathered herself and returned to the twins who had tired themselves with her jewelry and had started to doze on top of one another on the floor. She put them on her bed and pulled the bedspread over and around them. Mindlessly she sang to them, as Eoghan had sung her to sleep for years.

My Belfast Girl, so fair and so pretty
With ivory skin, with crimson hair and moss green eyes
I'll be with you, my child, through all your journeys
So hush, now, Belfast Girl, don't you cry
I'll love you, Belfast Girl, until I die.

Kathleen ran her finger along the window ledge, tracing the edge of ice that was creeping into her room. Eoghan had promised to teach her how to replace the seal this weekend. She reached into her laundry hamper and pulled out the first thing she came upon, her soiled blouse from the pub, and pushed it tight against the window, permanently ruining the sheer fabric. She leaned in hard, against the ledge, supporting herself as her head came to rest against the cold glass. Da was gone.

In the distance Kathleen could see neighbours approaching. The sleet had stopped, but the belligerent wind threatened a second coming. She could hear the crunch of ice breaking beneath a parade of boots on their way, in a sign of sympathy and solidarity.

Eoghan's funeral was three days later, from St Anne's Cathedral. It was strange to see the church where she had so often gone with her parents, for Sunday mass, for christenings and baptisms, for confirmations and first communions, for weddings and feast days, suddenly so solemnly decked out. To see so many of the townspeople's faces twisted, in grief and pity; and relief. Relief, that it was not them that had to bury their own.

Rauri and Wellynd, barely tall as the oak pews themselves, were dressed in their best clothes in the very first row. Wellynd held Rauri's hand and sat quietly watching, reminding her brother to be quiet in God's house. After the Monsignor finished his prayers for Eoghan's soul finding everlasting peace and happiness with his Lord and Saviour, one by one they filed out of the church, their clothes smelling of incense and candles. They each stopped to dip one finger into the holy water basin and then touch their forehead lightly in benediction, before beginning the soggy walk to the cemetery behind the hill. High heels sunk deeply into the thawing muck, thanks to an uncommonly warm day, as their owners clung to their neighbors for balance; for comfort. Kathleen and the children were the last to leave, behind Mary, who walked alongside with Eoghan's coffin. She was last to arrive at the hole in the ground that would see them often; a place now to visit on holy days, on birthdays, on anniversaries, on any day really that you'd rather be anywhere but a damp soggy bog that held the rotting bones of your father.

Padraig came to Kathleen's side, after they lowered Eoghan into the ground. Nearby, two tired men in soiled overalls and dirty fingernails smoked cigarettes as they stood waiting beside a truck that held their shovels and grave stones. They would wait until everyone left before beginning to lob the mounds of wet earth upon the coffin.

"You'll not be alone. I'll look out for you, you know that, right?" Padraig smiled, and Kathleen nodded in diffuse agreement.

"I should get back to the house, Ma'll be needing help with the twins."

"I'll walk with you," he said, as he fell into step with her. He held out his arm for her to steady herself, when they reached a particularly muddy part of the path. But Kathleen didn't reach for him. Padraig noticed that she was wearing Eoghan's old Wellingtons on her feet, as she trudged deliberately toward the house.

A light mist was beginning to gather around the edges of the cemetery and the chill made Kathleen shiver. She stuffed her hands deeper into her pockets and fingered the hole in the left one she'd forgotten to fix. Padraig had fallen behind a little, to light a cigarette, and ran to keep pace with her. They made their way to the porch of her house in silence. The screen door was closed, but inside the wake was just beginning to come into full swing. Soon, the sorrow would be replaced by stories from her father's misguided but well intended youth, war stories, memories and a few lamenting ballads; each edged and eased into existence by another glass of Tullamore Dew or Clontarf.

Padraig stood between her and the screen door, holding it closed.

"Kathleen, I need to tell you something."

Kathleen didn't want to hear anything Padraig had to say. As far as she was concerned, if it wasn't for his nonsense her father would still be here with them. Eoghan's death was as much Padraig's doing as it was his own, and anything Padraig was going to offer wouldn't help.

"Ma'll need help with the twins," she said, as she reached over his shoulder for the door handle.

Padraig took her hand from the door, in both of his. "I meant what I said earlier, Kathleen, I'll be here for you. I'll take care of you."

"Well... thanks," Kathleen said, as she tried to free her hand.

"What I mean is..." he stumbled on. "Kathleen, I'm not good with words, you know that. I just, well, without Eoghan, and well, you know what I mean." She knew exactly what he meant, and her stomach sank with the knowledge.

"No, not really, Padraig," she fumbled, "but it's okay. Like I said, I really need to be going. Ma and all." She made a second attempt, this time with success, to free herself from Padraig's grip. She had just put her hand upon the latch, when Padraig stepped in front of her, pushing her backwards and blocking her entry to the house.

"Oh to hell with it," he spewed. "Listen, Kathleen, I'll marry ya." He exhaled with relief. "There, I said it. It's the way Eoghan would have wanted it." Padraig turned to face the door, "We could tell them now. Some good news would do them well."

"No." Kathleen's words were soft but undeniable. Padraig turned to face her.

"Give me one good reason not to tell them tonight."

"No," she repeated.

"But it'll do them well to hear it."

"No." She took a step back from him. "I mean I don't want to marry you, Padraig. You're a good man, and I do like you, but," She was fighting to be kind, for Mary's sake, for the twins' sake who would still need help from the town, "but I don't want to marry you. I don't want to marry anyone. Right now, at least." To Kathleen's surprise, Padraig didn't seem too put off or offended by her rejection, and she wondered if he had actually heard her.

"You need to marry someone who loves you, Padraig. And that's not me."

Padraig put his hand to the side of her face and let his fingers slide down the turn of her neck, caressing her collarbone. He looked into her defiant green eyes, and began to tighten his hold upon her shoulder. "I said I'd marry you Kathleen." The unexpected force of the hand upon her shoulder moved her easily and she found herself facing the gathering of unaware guests just inside the screen door.

"And we should tell them tonight, they'll do good for the good news." Padraig said through whisky-steeped breath and clenched teeth.

"Lets go in then," she offered. She felt Padraig's anger dissolve. I'll be out of here by week's end, she thought to herself. The twins will be okay, she reassured herself, they're young.

"Guess what!" Padraig's voice boomed above the crowd, "I'm to marry Kathleen." The sorrow of loss was replaced by shouts of congratulations and good wishes in the easy embrace of family and friends. Mary made her way over to her daughter and held her in a tight embrace, saying nothing. I'm sorry Ma, but if I don't get out now I never will. I love you, but I will not become you.

The night passed with laughter through tears and by daybreak much of their emotions had been spilled on the kitchen floor. Kathleen rose early and started a large pot of coffee for those that had spent the night.

She thought of Padraig, and of her parents, Mary and Eoghan, who had been together since they were fourteen; just three years younger than she was tonight. Sure, there were bad spots, but didn't everyone have those? But most of all, they were together. They stayed together. They faced the world together. The world didn't exist with just one of them. It needed them both to balance and keep it spinning on its axis. In one excruciating moment, the clarity of the new world had being forced upon her. Her father was gone. And what for? For God? What God? Irish. Catholic. Protestant. Politics. Religion. It was all just blood when you had to bury it.

"I'm happy for you," Mary said, as she passed through the room on her way upstairs. Kathleen smiled in response.

"Do you love him?" she asked.

"No," Kathleen replied.

"No matter," Mary assured. "He's a good man. He'll be a good provider. He'll be there for you," she said, fingering her wedding ring.

"Yes, ma," Kathleen replied turning away.

She looked in on the twins, asleep in her bed. They didn't stir. They were exhausted. She watched them and bent to brush the hair from Wellynd's face. She would miss them most of all, she thought, as she bent in to kiss them.

She pulled the velvet pouch from under her mattress and carefully counted her life's savings. £528. It would get her to London, and a few nights lodging - so long as she wasn't proud of where she slept. She packed only as much clothing as she could carry in her bag and headed downstairs, avoiding the third step for the last time.

She piled on Eoghan's sweater under her warm Pea coat, boots, hat, muffler and mittens. She left a single manila envelope with her mother's name clearly written on it, along with the claddagh ring from Padraig.

Ma,

I'm sorry to say good bye this way, but I know if I waited to do it in person, you'd talk me out of it, and I couldn't let that happen. I would never be happy. I want to be happy, Ma, and I know you want that for me too.

You know I don't love Padraig, and I can't marry someone I don't love. It does matter, to me. Please see that he gets his ring back.

I don't know if I'll be back, or even in touch. I think a clean break might be best for us all.

I talked with Father Quinn and he assured me he'd keep an eye out for you and the twins. Let him.

I have to go now, Ma. I'm sorry. I do love you.

All my love,
Kathleen

Mary read the note twice then before tossing it into the fire. She watched the edged slowly crisp brown, then twist into a scorched curl. She slipped the silver ring into the top pocket of her apron for when she saw Padraig later that day.

"Damn fool, wanting to be happy," she muttered. "She gets that from you, Eoghan."

11 comments:

  1. i just can´t praise this enough. from the very first sentence i was entranced. brilliantly descriptive and evocative. great, great story.
    Wonderful

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. I grew up in Belfast during the troubles, and this rings true to the time and emotion. Dark, cold, and bloody. Beautiful piece. Can wait to read more. Nice job. Really nice job. I agree with Michael, great, great story.

    Moll Quigley

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  3. Well written. Strong characters with genuine struggle. I liked it. A lot.

    John Martune
    London

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  4. I could have kept reading....such an amazing author! I want to read more more more!

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  5. Vivid and enthralling. Top notch writing.

    Gabe Dumas

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  6. A multiple question-raiser; the reader gets the impression that it isn't just Eoghan's death or Padraig's aggressive proposal which causes Kathleen to flee. She's made preparations, has been planning it for some time. But is it the cloying inertia of family tradition, the innate violence, pride, bigotry, pomposity of sectarian conflict, or is it a personal right of passage - something she HAS to do?
    Other than the fleeting moment when 'Padraig noticed' that she is wearing Eoghan's old wellingtons, the reader is 100% in Kathleen's point of view, her inner world, and we're rooting for her to get the hell out of it!
    Keep going!

    Brooke Fieldhouse

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  7. Moving and beautifully written. A masterpiece.

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  8. This one got to me. I identified all to well with Kathleen and her need to be anywhere else but there. It's strong writing that is emotionally pure; sometimes uncomfortable because of its purity. It's beautiful. It's haunting.

    Deborah Phipps

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  9. Wonderfully written. I look forward to more from this author.

    Audra Chindir

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  10. Very professional prose. One gets the feeling that Freedom Chevalier is a natural talent.

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  11. i just found this. Lovely writing, this. And, now I see from her website, that she's reclaimed herself as a belfast girl, going to the irish spelling of her name. saoirse. Well, one generation removed. We don't mind such things here. Still counts to us. good on you, lass. welcome home.

    Rory Mulchahy
    Belfast

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