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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 18 September, 2019
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A short story before bedtime: Bluebell Meadow by Benedict Kiely

Kiely would have been 100 on 15 August of this year. Born in Dromore, he had a long and prolific writing career.

Benedict Kiely

BENEDICT KIELY WOULD have been 100 on 15 August this year. Born in Dromore, he worked as a journalist and critic, and became one of Ireland’s best known writers. He was published by notable publications such as the New Yorker, and was named Saoi of Aosdána. He died in 2007 and this year New Island has published a collection of his work. This story is taken from that collection. 

9781848407510

Bluebell Meadow by Benedict Kiely

When she came home in the evening from reading in the park that was a sort of an island, the sergeant who had been trounced by the gipsies was waiting to ask her questions about the bullets. He had two of them in the cupped palm of his right hand, holding the hand low down, secretively. His left elbow was on the edge of the white-scrubbed kitchen table. The golden stripes on his blue-black sleeve, more black than blue, were as bright as the evening sunshine on the old town outside. He was polite, almost apologetic, at first. He said: I hate to bother yourself and your aunt and uncle. But it would be better for everybody’s sake if you told me where you got these things. People aren’t supposed to have them. Least of all girls in a convent school.

There had been six of them. The evening Lofty gave them to her she had looked at them for a whole hour, sitting at that table, half-reading a book. Her uncle and aunt were out at the cinema. She spread the bullets on the table and moved them about, making designs and shapes and patterns with them, joining them by imaginary lines, playing with them as if they were draughts or dominoes or precious stones. It just wasn’t possible that such harmless mute pieces of metal could be used to kill people. Then she wearied of them, put them away in an old earthenware jug on the mantelpiece and after a while forgot all about them.They were the oddest gifts,

God knew, for a boy to give to a girl. Not diamonds again, darling. Say it with bullets.

This is how the park happens to be a sort of an island. The river comes out of deep water, lined and overhung by tall beeches, and round a right-angled bend to burst over a waterfall and a salmon leap. On the right bank and above the fall a sluice-gate regulates the flow of a millrace. A hundred yards downstream the millrace is carried by aqueduct over a rough mountain stream or burn coming down to join the river. Between river and race and mountain stream is a triangular park, five or six acres, seats by the watersides, swings for children, her favourite seat under a tall conifer and close to the corner where the mountain stream meets the river. The place is called Bluebell Meadow.The bluebells grow in the woods on the far side of the millrace.

When the river is not in flood a peninsula of gravel and bright sand guides the mountain stream right out into the heart of the current. Children play on the sand, digging holes, building castles, sending flat pebbles skimming and dancing like wagtails upstream over the smooth water. One day Lofty is suddenly among the children just as if he had come out of the river which is exactly what he has done. His long black waders still drip water. The fishing-rod which he holds in his left hand, while he expertly skims pebbles with the right, dips and twiddles above him like an aerial. The canvas bag on his back is sodden and heavy and has grass, to keep the fish fresh, sticking out of the mouth of it. One of the children is doing rifle-drill with the shaft of his net. She has never spoken to him but she knows who he is.

When she tires of reading she can look at the river and dream, going sailing with the water. Or simply close

her eyes. Or lean back and look up into the tall coni- fer, its branches always restless and making sounds, and going away from her like a complicated sort of spiral stairway. She has been told that it is the easiest tree in the world to climb but no tree is all that easy if you’re wearing a leg-splint. She is looking up into the tree, and wondering, when Lofty sits beside her. His waders are now dry and rubbery to smell. The rod, the net and the bag are laid on the grass, the heads of two sad trout protruding, still life that was alive this morning. Her uncle who keeps greyhounds argues that fishing is much more cruel than coursing: somewhere in the happy river are trout that were hooked and got away, hooks now festering in their lovely speckled bodies. She thinks a lot about things like that.

Lofty sits for five minutes, almost, before he says: I asked Alec Quigley to tell you I was asking for you.
—He told me.
—What did you say?
—Did he not tell you?
—He said you said nothing but I didn’t believe him.
—Why not?
—You had to say something.
—If I said anything Alec Quigley would tell the whole town.
—I daresay he would.
—He’s the greatest clatter and clashbag from hell to Omagh.
—I didn’t know.
—You could have picked a more discreet ambassador. The words impress him. He says: It’s a big name for Alec Quigley. I never thought of him as an ambassador.
—What then? A go-between? A match-maker? A gooseberry?

They are both laughing. Lofty is a blond tall freckled fellow with a pleasant laugh. He asks her would she like a trout.
—I’d love one.Will we cook it here and now?
—I can roll it in grass for you and get a bit of newspaper in McCaslan’s shop up at the waterfall.
—Who will I tell my aunt and uncle gave me the trout?
—Tell them nothing. Tell them you whistled and a trout jumped out at you. Tell them a black man came out of the river and gave you a trout.

He left his bag and rod where they were and walked from the apex of the triangular park to the shop at the angle by the waterfall. He came back with a sheet of black parcelling paper and wrapped up the trout very gently. He had long delicate hands, so freckled that they were almost totally brown. The trout, bloody mouth gaping, looked sadly up at the two of them. Lofty said: I’d like to go out with you.

—I’m often out. Here.

So he laughed and handed her the trout and went on upstream towards the falls, casting from the bank at first, then wading knee-deep across a shallow bar of gravel and walking on across a green hill towards the deeps above the falls. She liked his long stride, and the rod dip- ping and twiddling above him, and the laden bag – even though she knew it was full of dead gaping trout. She knew he was a popular fellow in the town. Yet she didn’t tell her aunt and uncle who exactly it was had made her a gift of the trout. She said it was an elderly man and she wasn’t quite sure of his name, but she described him so that they’d guess he was a well-known fisherman, a jeweller by trade and highly respected in the town. Not that Lofty and his people were disrespectable.

The gipsies who trounced the sergeant hadn’t been real Romany gypsies but tinkers or travelling people from the west of Ireland, descendants, the theory was, of broken people who went on the roads during the hungry years of the 1840s and hadn’t settled down since. Five of them, wild, ragged, rough-headed fellows, came roaring drunk out of a pub in Bridge Lane. The pub was owned by a man called Yarrow and the joke among those literate enough to appreciate it was about Yarrow Visited and Yarrow Revisited. There was also an old English pishogue about girls putting Yarrow, the plant, between two plates and wishing on it and saying: Good morrow, good morrow, good yarrow, thrice good morrow to thee! I hope before this time tomorrow thou wilt show my true love to me.

One of the five fell with a clatter down the three steps from the door of the pub. In their tottering efforts to pick him up two of the others struck their heads together and began to fight. The remaining two joined in and so, when he was able to stand up, did the fellow who had fallen down the steps. The sergeant was walking past and was fool enough to try to stop them. In the west of Ireland the civic guards had more sense and stood as silent spectators until the tinkers had hammered the fight out of each other.

The five of them, united by foreign invasion, gave the sergeant an unmerciful pounding. He had just enough breath left to blow his whistle. More police came running. More tinkers came shouting, men, women and children, out of the pub, out of dark tunnels of entryways between houses, out of holes in the walls. The battle escalated. More police came.The tinkers made off on two flat carts. One old man was so drunk he fell helpless off a cart and was arrested. The police followed in a tender.

At their encampment of caravans a mile outside the town the tinkers abandoned the carts and took in the darkness to the fields and the hedgerows and even, it was said, to the tops of the trees. The police wisely did not follow, but set a heavy guard on the camp, caravans, carts, horses, scrap metal and everything the tinkers owned. Sober and sheepishly apologetic they reappeared in the morning and gave themselves up and half a dozen of them went to jail. But for a long time afterwards when the sergeant walked the town the wits at the street-corner would whistle: Oh, play to me gipsy, the moon’s high above.

Thanks to Arthur Tracy, known as the Street Singer, it was a popular song at the time.
In spite of all that, the sergeant remained an amiable sort of man, stout, slow-moving, with a large brown moustache and a son who was a distinguished footballer. Yarrow is a strong-scented herb related to the daisies.

It has white or pink flowers in flat clusters.

One Sunday in the previous June in an excursion train to Bundoran by the western sea she had overheard Lofty’s mother telling funny stories. As a rule Protestants didn’t go west to Bundoran but north to Portrush. The sea was sectarian. What were the wild waves saying: At Portrush: Slewter, slaughter, holy water, harry the papishes everyone, drive them under and bate them asunder, the Protestant boys will carry the drum. Or at Bundoran: On St Patrick’s day, jolly and gay, we’ll kick all the Protestants out of the way, and if that won’t do we’ll cut them in two and send them to hell with their red, white and blue.
Nursery rhymes.

She sat facing her aunt in the train and her uncle sat beside her. They were quiet, looking at all the long beauty of Lough Erne which has an island, wooded or pastoral, for every day in the year. Her aunt, a timid little woman, said now and again: Glory be to God for all his goodness.

Her uncle said just once: You should see Lake Superior. No end to it. As far as the human eye can see. Then they were all quiet, overhearing Lofty’s mother who had no prejudices about the religion of the ocean and who, with three other people, sat across the corridor from them, and who had a good-natured carrying voice and really was fun to listen to. She was saying: I’m a Protestant myself, missus dear, and I mean no disrespect to confession but you must have heard about the young fellow who went to the priest to tell him his sins and told him a story that had more women in it than King Solomon had in the Bible and the goings-on were terrible, and the priest says to him, Young man are you married?, and the young fellow says back to him, dead serious and all, Naw father but I was twice in Fintona.

The train dived through a tunnel of tall trees. The lake vanished. Sunlight flashing and flickering through leaves made her close her eyes. Everybody on the train, even her aunt, seemed to be laughing.A man was saying: Fintona always had a bit of a name. For wild women.

Lofty’s mother said, I was born there myself but I never noticed that it was all that good, nobody ever told me.

She opens her eyes and the sunlight flickers down on her through the spiralling branches of the great conifer. There’s a book in the public library that has everything, including pictures, about all the trees of Great Britain and Ireland. Lofty is on the very tip of the peninsula of sand and gravel, demonstrating fly-casting to half a dozen children who are tailor-squatting around his feet.

She is aware that he’s showing off to impress her and the thought makes her warm and pleased, ready to laugh at anything. But to pretend that she’s unimpressed she leans back and looks up into the tree in which the sun- light is really alive, creeping round the great bole, spots of light leaping like birds from one branch to another. She thinks of the omú tree which grows on the pampas of South America. Its trunk can be anything up to 40 or 50 feet thick. The wood is so soft that when cut it rots like an over-ripe melon and is useless as firewood. The leaves are large, glossy and deep green like laurel leaves – and also poisonous. But they give shade from the bare sun to man and beast, and men mark their way on the endless plains by remembering this or that omú tree. She has read about omú trees. Her own tree is for sure not one of them. She sits up straight when her book is lifted from her lap. Lofty is sitting by her side. The children are pointing and laughing. He must have crept up on hands and knees pretending to be a wild animal, a wolf, a prowling tiger. He’s very good at capers of that sort. His rod and net lie by the side of the burn.

It was April when he first sat beside her. It is now mid-June. Her school will close soon for the holidays and she will no longer be compelled to wear the uniform: black stockings, pleated skirt of navy-blue serge, blue gansey, blue necktie with saffron stripes, blue blazer with school crest in saffron on breast-pocket, blue beret, black flat-heeled shoes. Even Juliet, and she was very young, didn’t have to wear a school uniform. If she had, Romeo wouldn’t have looked at her.

Not that they are star-crossed lovers or Lofty any Romeo. They haven’t even crossed the millrace to walk in the bluebell woods as couples of all ages customarily do. She isn’t shy of walking slowly because of the leg-splint but she knows that Lofty hasn’t asked her because he thinks she might be: that makes her feel for him as she might feel, if she had one, for a witless younger brother who’s awkward. And a bit wild: for a lot of Lofty’s talk doesn’t go with the world of school uniforms mostly blue for the mother of God. What the saffron is for, except variety of a sort, she can’t guess. Lofty’s rattling restless talk would lift Mother Teresa out of her frozen black rigidity.

Lofty with great good humour fingers the saffron stripes and says that, in spite of everything, she’s a wee bit of an Orangewoman.They hold hands regularly. Lofty can read palms, a variant reading every time. They have kissed occasionally, when the children who are always there have been distracted by a water-hen or rat or leaping fish or a broken branch or an iceberg of froth from the falls.

—Don’t look now, he says one day, but if you swivel round slowly you’ll see my three sisters in action.
Beyond the millrace and against the fresh green of woods she can see the flash of coloured frocks, the glint of brass buttons and pipe-clayed belts. In those days it was only the wild ones who went with the soldiers: it wasn’t money and security they were after.
—They’re hell for soldiers, he says, between the three of them they’d take on the Germans.
Lofty himself reads a lot of military books, campaigns and generals, Napoleon and Ludendorff, all the way from Blenheim to the Dardanelles. When he doodles as he often does on the writing-pad she always carries with her – to make notes on her reading, to transcribe favourite poems – he doodles uniforms, every detail exact. Yet he listens to her when she reads poetry

or the splendid prose of a volume of selected English essays, Caxton to Belloc.
—They’re advancing on us, he says. They have us surrounded, enfiladed, debouched and circumnavigated.
—We’ll tell Maryanne, the three sisters say, that you’re with another.

Two of them, Mildred and Rosemary, are plump, laughing, blonde girls, and Mildred who is the youngest is as freckled as her brother. Gertie, the eldest, is olive- faced, with jet-black hair, wrinkles on the forehead and around the eyes like her mother. She is never to see the father of the family but the gossip of the town is to tell her that he’s away a lot in Aldershot and India and that Lofty’s mother, that merry woman, is friendly with more soldiers than the one she’s married to.

The three British soldiers who are with the sisters are, one of them from Sligo, one from Wexford and one actually from Lancashire, England. They all talk and laugh a lot and she likes them. The Lancashire lad climbs right up to the top of the tree and pretends to see everything that’s going on in the town and tells them about it: he has a lurid imagination. Then they go away towards the waterfall, still laughing, calling back about telling Maryanne. She asks him who Maryanne is. Lofty, who clearly likes his sisters, is not in the least embarrassed by the suggestion that he has another woman.
—Oh Maryanne’s nobody or nobody much.
—She has a name. She must be somebody. She’s not really jealous, just curious.
—Maryanne’s a girl I met one day on the road beyond McCaslan’s shop.
—You met nobody on the road?
—She was wheeling a pram.
—She’s married to Mr Nobody?

—It wasn’t her pram. She’s the nursemaid in Mooney’s, the fancy-bread bakery. There was a lovely smell of fresh bread.
—Had you a good appetite, apple-jelly, jam-tart?

But since the rest of that rhyme to which children, Protestant and Catholic, rope-skip on the streets, is tell me the name of your sweetheart, she doesn’t finish it and finds herself, to her annoyance, blushing. Lofty doesn’t seem to notice.
—There were twins in the pram. I pushed it for her up the hill to the main road. Then she said I bet you wouldn’t do that for me if it was in the town on the court-house hill where everybody could see you. I said why not and she said Christian Brothers’ boys are very stuck-up. I’ve met some that would do anything they could or you’d let them if they had a girl in the woods or in the dark, but that wouldn’t be seen talking to her on the street, maids aren’t good enough for them. I didn’t tell her I was a Presbyterian and went to the academy.
—Why not?
—She mightn’t like a Presbyterian pushing her pram. They laugh at that until the playing children turn and look and laugh with them. Cheerful voices call from beyond the millrace where soldiers and sisters are with-
drawing to the woods.
—We have girls at the academy, on the house, what Harry Cassidy and Jerry Hurst and the boys don’t have at the Brothers. Harry and the boys are mad envious when we tell them about the fun we have feeling Daisy Allen under the desk at school. All lies of course.
—I hope Daisy Allen doesn’t hear that.
—Och Daisy, she’s well handled anyway, she’s going about with a bus-driver and he’s a married man as well, he ruined a doctor’s daughter in Dungannon. Harry and the Catholic boys think the Protestant girls are wilder because they don’t have to tell it all in confession. That isn’t true either.

One other funny story she had heard Lofty’s mother telling that day as the train in the evening left Bundoran station and the great romantic flat-topped mountains diminished into the distance. This time the story-teller faced her aunt and sat beside her uncle who had been talking about jerry-building in a new housing estate. Lofty’s mother agreed with him. She had a shopping-bag of sugar to smuggle back into the Six Counties where it cost more. The sugar was tastefully disguised under a top-dressing of dulse. With content and triumph Lofty’s mother sang a parody popular at the time: South of the border down Bundoran way, that’s where we get the Free State sugar to sweeten our tay.

She was great fun. She had bright blue eyes and a brown hat with a flaring feather, and a brown crinkly face. She said: Those houses are everything you say and worse. Fancy fronts and ready to fall.When you flush the lavatory in them the noise is heard all over the town. Only the other day the lady who lives in number three sent down to River Row for old Mr Hill, the chimney- sweep, and up he came and put the brush up the chimney and then went out, the way sweeps do, to see if the brush was showing out of the top of the chimney. No brush. In he went and screws on another length of handle on the brush and pushes for dear life, and out again to look, but no brush. In again and screws on the last bit of handle he has, and he’s pushing away when the lady from number eleven knocks on the door. Have you the sweep in, mis- sus dear, she says. I have, missus dear, says the lady from number three. Then please ask him to be careful, missus dear, she says, that’s twice now he’s upset our wee Rosy from the lavatory seat.

Because of her happy carrying voice passers-by in the corridor stop to join the fun. The smuggled sugar is safely across the border.
Remembering Lofty’s laughing mother makes it easier still to like Lofty. The three sisters also look as if they’d be good for a lot of laughs.
Her uncle is a tall broad-shouldered man with a good grey suit, a wide-brimmed hat, two gold teeth and a drawl. Years ago he was in the building trade in the United States and knows a lot about jerry-building. He gets on very well with Lofty’s mother.

It was well on towards the end of August when the black man sat on the bench beside her. She was looking sideways towards the bridge over the millrace, and laughing: because two big rough young fellows were running like hares before Mr McCaslan’s boxer dog. Mr McCaslan who owned the shop was also water-bailiff and park-keeper. The rough fellows had been using, brutally, one of the swings meant for small children, so brutally that the iron stays that supported it were rising out of the ground. Mr McCaslan had mentioned the matter to them. They had been offensive, even threatening, to the old rheumatic man so he hobbled back to his shop and sent the boxer dog down as his deputy. The pair took off as if all hell were behind them. It was funny because the dog didn’t bark or growl or show hostility, didn’t even run fast, just loped along with a certain air of quiet determination and wouldn’t (as far as she knew) savage anybody. But he was a big dog even for a boxer and the retreat of the miscreants was faster than the Keystone Cops. She laughed so much that the book fell on the grass. The black man picked it up and sat down beside her.

She thought of him as a black man not because he was a Negro but because her uncle had told her that he was a member of the black preceptory which was a special branch of the Orange Order. She had seen him walking last twelfth of July in the big parade in memory of the battle of the Boyne, which happened a long time ago, and in honour of King William of Orange who was a long time dead and had never been in this town. He had worn the black sash, with shining metallic esoteric insignia attached, as had the other men who marched beside him. The contingent that followed wore blue sashes and were supposed to be teetotallers but her uncle said that that was not always so. One of the blue men, a red-faced red-headed fellow was teetering and might have fallen if he hadn’t been holding on to one of the poles that supported a banner.

The drums drummed, the banners bellied in the breeze, the pipes and fifes and brass and accordions played:

It is old but it is beautiful And its colours they are fine,
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it in his youth, In bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I’ll always wear The sash my father wore.

The name of the black man who sat beside her was Samuel McClintock and he was a butcher. It was said about him for laughs that if the market ran out of meat the town could live for a week on McClintock’s apron: blue, with white stripes.That August day and in the public park he naturally wasn’t wearing the apron. He had a black moustache, a heavy blue chin, a check cloth-cap, thick-soled boots, thick woollen stockings and whipcord knee-breeches.The Fomorians, the monsters from stormy seas had, each of them, one arm, one leg and three rows of teeth. He said: The dog gave those ruffians the run.

The way he said it took the fun out of it. She said: Yes, Mr McClintock.
She wished him elsewhere. She half-looked at her book. She was too well-reared to pick it up from her lap and ostentatiously go on reading. The river was in a brown fresh that day, the peninsula of sand and gravel not to be seen, nor Lofty, nor the children. The black man said: Plenty water in the river today.

She agreed with him. It was also a public park in a free-and-easy town and everyone had a right to sit where he pleased. Yet this was her own seat under the tall tree, almost exclusively hers, except when Lofty was there. The black man said: The Scotchies have a saying that the salmon’s her ain when there’s water but she’s oors when it’s oot.
He explained: That means that often they’re easier to catch when the water’s low.
He filled his pipe and lighted it. The smell of tobacco was welcome. It might have been her imagination but until he pulled and puffed and sent the tobacco smell out around them she had thought that the resinous air under the tree was polluted by the odours of the butcher’s shop and apron. He said that the salmon were a sight to see leaping the falls when they went running upstream. She said that she had often watched them.

—I’m told you’re very friendly with a well-known young fisherman of my persuasion.
—Who, for instance?

—You know well. That’s what I want to talk to you about. It’s a serious matter.

—Being friendly with a fisherman?
—Don’t play the smarty with me, young lassie. Even if you do go to the convent secondary school.Young people now get more education than’s good for them. Lofty at the academy and you at the convent have no call to be chumming it up before the whole town.
—Why not?

But it occurred to her that they hadn’t been chumming-up or anything else before the whole town. What eyes could have spied on them in this enchanted island?
—His uncle’s a tyler, that’s why.
—I never knew he had an uncle.
—His mother’s brother is a tyler and very strict.
—What’s a tyler?
—I shouldn’t repeat it, lassie. But I will, to impress on you how serious it is.A tyler he is and a strict one.Wasn’t it him spoke up to have Lofty let into the B Specials?
—Don’t ask me. I never knew he was a B Special.
But one day for a joke, she remembered, he had given her a handful of bullets.
—The nuns wouldn’t tell you this at school but the B Specials were set up by Sir Basil Brooke to hold Ulster against the Pope and the Republic of Ireland.

The nuns, for sure, hadn’t told her anything of the sort: Mother Teresa, who was very strong on purity and being a lady and not sitting like a man with your legs crossed, had never once mentioned the defensive heroisms of the B Specials who, out in country places, went about at night with guns and in black uniforms, holding up Catholic neighbours and asking them their names and addresses – which they knew very well to begin with. The Lofty she knew in daylight by this laughing river didn’t seem to be cut out for such nocturnal capers.

—If his uncle knew that the two of you and you a Catholic girl were carrying-on there’d be hell upon earth.
—But we’re not carrying-on.
—You were seen kissing here on this bench. What’s that but carrying-on?
—What does he level?
—What does who level?
—The uncle who’s a leveller or whatever you called him.
—Speak with respect, young lassie.A tyler, although I shouldn’t tell you the secret, is a big man in the Order at detecting intruders. His obligation is this: I do solemnly declare that I will be faithful to the duties of my office and I will not admit any person into the lodge without having first found him to be in possession of the financial password or without the sanction of the Worshipful Master of the Lodge.

Then after a pause he said with gravity: And I’m the worshipful master.
He was the only one of the kind she had ever met or ever was to meet and she did her best, although it was all very strange there by the river and the rough stream and under the big tree, to appear impressed, yet all she could think of saying was: But I’m not interfering with his tyling.

Then she was angry and close to tears, although it was also funny: For all I care he can tile the roofs and floors and walls of every house in this town.

The big man hadn’t moved much since he sat down, never raised his voice, but now he shouted: Lassie, I’ll make you care. The B Specials are sworn to uphold Protestant liberty and beat down the Fenians and the IRA.

—I’m not a Fenian nor an IRA.
—You’re a Roman Catholic, aren’t you? And there isn’t any other sort. Sir Basil Brooke says that Roman Catholics are 100 per cent disloyal and that he wouldn’t have one of them about the house.
—Sir Who’s It?
—No cheek, lassie. Didn’t he sit up a tree at Colebrook all night long with a gun waiting for the IRA to attack his house? Didn’t he found the B Specials to help the police to defend the throne and the Protestant religion?
What was it to her if Sir Somebody or Other spent all his life up a tree at Colebrook or anywhere else? The Lancashire soldier had climbed her tree and been as comic as a monkey up a stick. The black man calmed himself: Your own clergy are dead set against mixed marriages.
—We weren’t thinking of marriage.
—What of then? Silliness and nonsense. The young have no wit. What would Mother Teresa say if she heard you were keeping company with a Protestant?
—Who would tell her?
—I might. For your own good and for Lofty.
He knocked the ash out of his pipe and put it away. The pleasant tobacco smell faded. She smelled blood and dirt and heard screams and knew, with a comical feeling of kindness, that she had been wrongly blaming him for bringing with him the stench of the shambles. There was a piggery at the far end of the field beyond the river and the wind was blowing from that direction.
—That’s the piggery, she said. It’s a disgrace.
—Time and again I’ve said that on the town council. You must have read what I said in the papers. It’s a sin, shame and scandal to have a piggery beside a beauty spot. Not that I’ve anything against pigs, in my business, in their own place.

He stood up and patted her on the shoulder. He was really just a big rough friendly man: You don’t want him put out of the Specials or the Lodge itself.
—Why should he be?
—These are deep matters. But they tell me you read a lot. You’ve the name for being one of the cleverest students in this town, Protestant or Catholic. So I’ll talk to you, all for the best, as if you were a grown-up and one of my own. It is possible but very difficult for a convert to be accepted as a member of the Orange Order.
He was as good as standing to attention. He was looking over her head towards the waterfall.
—A convert would have to be of several years standing and his background would have to be carefully screened. His admission would have to be authorized by the Grand Lodge. They’d have to go that high, like Rome for the Catholics. No convert can get into the Black Preceptory if either of his parents is still living, in case the Roman Catholic Church might exert pressure on a parent.
He was reciting. Like the sing-song way in which in school the children learned the Catechism.

Q: What are the seven deadly sins?
A: Pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, envy, anger and sloth. Q: What are the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance? A: Wilful murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor and defrauding the labourer of his wages.

Dear Sacred Heart it was a cheery world.
—A convert who was even a Protestant clergyman was blacked-out because one of his parents was still living, and there is automatic expulsion for dishonouring the Institution by marrying a Roman Catholic.

The great tree creaked its branches above them. The brown water tumbled on towards the town.
—You see what I mean, lassie.

She supposed she saw. In a way she was grateful. He was trying to help. He shook her hand as if they were friends for ever. He went off towards the waterfall so that, without turning around, she could not see him walking away and he could not, thank God, see her face laughing, laughing. For, sweet heart of Jesus fount of love and mercy to thee we come thy blessings to implore, but it was comic to think of him marching up the convent grounds (he should wear his black sash and have a fife and drum before him) holy white statues to left and right and a Lourdes grotto as high as Mount Errigal, to relate all about the love-life of Lofty and herself to Mother Teresa who had a mouth like a rat-trap – and a mind. A worshipful master and a most worshipful reverend mother and never, or seldom, the twain shall meet. She was an odd sort of a girl. She sat around a lot and had read too many books. It was funny, also, to think of his daughter, Gladys, a fine good-natured brunette with a swinging stride, a bosom like a Viking prow, and a dozen boy friends of all creeds and classes. Nothing sectarian about Gladys who was one of his own kind and the daughter of a worshipful master. Somebody should tell the tyler to keep an eye on her. But she was too clever to be caught, too fast on her feet, too fast on her feet.
Walking slowly past the Orange hall on the way home she thought that the next time she met him she would have a lot to tell to lazy, freckled, lovable Lofty. The Orange hall was a two-storeyed brownstone building at a crossroads on the edge of the town. High on its wall a medallion image of William of Orange on an impossibly white horse rode forever across the Boyne.

The two old cannon-guns on the green outside had been captured from the Germans in the Kaiser war. In there, Lofty’s lodge met and it was a popular joke that no man could become a member until he rode a buck goat backways up the stairs. Sometimes in the evenings bands of music played thunderously in there, practising for the day in July when they marched out, banners flying. It was crazy to think that a man on a white horse, riding across a river 200 years ago could now ride between herself and Lofty. Or for that matter – although Mother Teresa would have a fit if she thought that a pupil of hers could think of such things – another man on a chair or something being carried shoulder-high in the city of Rome.

All this she meant to mention to Lofty the next time he came to the seat under the tree. But all she could get around to saying was: Lofty, what’s a tyler?
He had no rod and net and was dressed, not for fishing, in a new navy-blue suit. The children called to him from the gravel but he paid no attention to them. At first he didn’t pretend to hear her, so she asked him again. He said that a tyler was a man who laid tiles. That was the end of that. Then it was winter. One whole week the park was flooded. She couldn’t exactly remember when it was that Lofty had given her the bullets.

It was also crazy to think that Lofty’s laughing mother could have a brother who went about spying on people and nosing them out. What eyes had spied on Lofty and herself on the enchanted island? What nosy neighbour had told somebody who told somebody who told the sergeant that she had bullets in the earthenware jug?
—If you don’t tell me, the sergeant says, it will be awkward for all concerned. What would Mother Teresa think if she thought you had live bullets in an earthenware jug?

It wasn’t possible to control the giggles. What, in the holy name of God, would Mother Teresa think, if the sergeant and the worshipful master descended on her simultaneously, what would she say, how would she look? Keeping live bullets in a jug must be one of the few things that she had not warned her girls against.
—You’ll have to come down to the barracks with me. I’ll walk ahead and you follow just in case the people are passing remarks. They might think I’m arresting you.
—What are you doing?
—Och, I’d just like you to make a statement. It’s not a crime to have bullets. Not for a young lady like you who wouldn’t be likely to be using them. But we have a duty to find out where they came from. My son Reggie speaks highly of you, Reggie the footballer you know.

She knew. It was a town joke that the sergeant couldn’t speak to anybody for ten minutes without mentioning Reggie who parted his hair up the middle, wore loud scarves and played football very well: it was clear that the sergeant thought that to be thought well of by Reggie was a special distinction.

Old low white houses line the hill that goes up from the brook and the co-operative creamery to the centre of the town. The sergeant plods on, twenty yards ahead of her. The town is very quiet. His black leather belt creaks and strains to hold him together. The butt of his pistol, his black baton case shine. She has never noticed before that Lofty has a stutter. Another sergeant sits behind a desk in the dayroom and makes notes. Two young constables are laughing in the background. The black man comes in and says: I warned the two of them.

Her own sergeant says: There wasn’t much harm in it.
—Not for the girl, says the man behind the desk. But for him a breach of discipline.

Lofty has surely never stuttered when he talked to her by the meeting of the waters.
—Did you tell them I gave you the bullets?
—Dear God, it wasn’t a crime to give me bullets.
—Did you tell them?
—I did not.
—They said you did.
—So.
Her own sergeant looks ashamed and rubs his moustache. The other sergeant says: Case closed.

Then her uncle walks in, and so hopping mad that he seems to have a mouthful of gold teeth. He talks for a long time and they listen respectfully because he’s a famous man for keeping running dogs which he feeds on brandy and beef. He says over and over again: You make a helluva fuss about a few bullets.
—A breach of discipline, says the man behind the desk.
—My ass and yours, says her uncle. A helluva fuss.
And repeats it many times as they walk home together.
—But all the same they’ll put him out of the Specials, he says. And I dare say he shouldn’t have been assing around giving away government issue.

Over the supper table he remembers the time he had been a policeman in Detroit: Some Negro trouble then and this rookie policeman from Oklahoma was on patrol with a trained man. The rookie has no gun. So they’re rushed by twenty black men and the first rock thrown clobbers the trained man unconscious. But the Oklahoma guy he stoops down, takes the pistol out of the other man’s holster and shoots six times and kills six black men, one, two, three, four, five, six. He didn’t waste a bullet.

—Sacred Heart have mercy, says her aunt.
—What did the other black men do, uncle?
—They took off for home and small blame to them. He was a cool one, that rookie, and a damned good shot. Here in this place they make a helluva fuss over a few bullets. I told them so.

Lofty came never again to the tall tree. They met a few times on the street and spoke a few words. She left the town after a while and went to work in London. Once, home on holidays, she met Lofty and he asked her to go to the pictures, and she meant to but never did. The Hitler war came on. She married an American and went to live in, of all places, Detroit. Her uncle and aunt and the sergeant and the worshipful master and the tyler and, I suppose, Lofty’s mother and old McCaslan and his dog died.

Remembering her, I walked, the last time I was in the town, to revisit Bluebell Meadow. The bridge over the millrace was broken down to one plank. Rank grass grew a foot high over most of the island. The rest of it was a wide track of sand and gravel where the river in fierce flood had taken everything before it. The children’s swings and all the seats were gone, smashed some time before by reluctant young soldiers from the North English cities doing their national service. Repair work had been planned but then the bombings and murders began.
No laughing Lancashire boy in British uniform will ever again climb the tall tree. For one thing the tree is gone. For another the soldiers go about in bands, guns at the ready, in trucks and armoured cars. There are burned-out buildings in the main streets – although the great barracks is unscathed – and barricades and checkpoints at the ends of the town. As a woman said to me: Nowadays we have gates to the town. Still, other towns are worse. Strabane, which was on the border and easy to bomb, is a burned-out wreck. And Newry, where the people badly needed shops and factories, and not ruins. And Derry is like Dresden on the day after.

When I wrote to her about this she said, among other things, that she had never found out the name of that tall conifer.

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About the author:

Benedict Kiely

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