Tell Them I'll Be There

Tell Them I'll Be There

Gerard Mac

To my parents
Danny and Ethel

The New York City Planners have a lot to answer for. In the early Sixties the architectural masterpiece that was Penn Station was pulled down and replaced by a soulless concourse. Why? The Romans preserved their Colosseum. They didn't destroy it.

The Visitors' Gallery at the New York Stock Exchange for many a must-see tourist attraction, was closed soon after Nine Eleven and shows no sign of reopening. Sad but understandable.

T
HERE WAS A
party that night at the Drummers'. There was singing and dancing and that old fool Malone danced a jig. The landlord, Matty, was drunk as usual by eight o'clock. His wife, Bridget, was run off her feet and there was a crush at the bar as the ale flowed and she had no idea who had paid for what or if they had paid at all. It was a lovely party with lots of laughter, lots of memories to share, but there were tears, too. The boys were leaving home.

Ma wasn't there. She had seen what the drink had done to her father and her brother Pat and she didn't want any part of it. As far as she was concerned the boys leaving home was not a cause for celebration anyway. But, as always on
occasions
such as this, her two sisters were there. Molly and Clare would shed all the tears the maudlin songs brought out. They pour the stuff down, the boys' long dead dad would say, and they top themselves up as long as someone's buying 'til it spills from their eyes disguised as tears. The real tears would be shed in private and not just by Ma. There was a girl called Kathleen.

‘Cheer up,' someone told Dan. ‘It will not be forever and you will come home to us a rich man, so you will.'

Malone reached up drunkenly to put an arm around Dan's shoulder. ‘If anyone comes home a rich man,' he announced, ignoring the previous speaker, ‘it will be this young fellow. Our very own Danny boy!'

The revellers erupted in a spontaneous rendition of the ‘Derry Air' and, oblivious to the raucous chorus all around him, 
Malone went on to ask, ‘Why is it we must lose our best young fellows? Can you tell me that?'

‘Why indeed?' Aunt Molly echoed. ‘Sure 'tis a pity we cannot be rid of the likes of you.'

Dan drew his brother Tim aside. ‘Are you going out to her?' he asked. ‘You can't just leave without a word.'

‘I can't get involved, Dan,' he said. ‘You know that.'

Their brother Michael handed them fresh drinks. ‘You're to be a priest, for God's sake,' Michael said, ‘not a monk. You'll be dealing with the ladies of the parish and facing up to them every day.' He grinned. ‘Ah, there'll be plenty of girls out to make your toes curl.'

Tim gave Michael a withering look, placed his glass firmly on the window ledge behind him and went out to speak to the girl to whom his imminent departure evidently meant so much.

‘He's never a priest,' Michael said, as Tim went out the door. ‘He's a man, for God's sake. Flesh and blood. He has the same needs as the rest of us.'

Dan didn't disagree but there was little to be done about it. It was Ma. She had set her heart on one of them being a priest and at one time she had high hopes it might be Dan. They had all served their time at the altar, all taken instruction. But only Tim had succumbed and from an early age. Always when someone, a relative perhaps, had asked the boys what they planned to do with their lives both Dan and Michael had answered, ‘See the world.' And Ma had always added, ‘But not this one. This one is for the priesthood. Sure 'tis what he was made for.' And Tim had always nodded dutifully, until he came to believe it himself, comforted by the sense of being ‘special', holier than the others and one of the Lord's chosen few.

The girl called Kathleen stood up straight when Tim appeared. She had been leaning back against the oak tree, her heart heavy with the words of Mrs Dolan. ‘Now you be a good girl, Kathleen, and find yourself another. Our Timothy is not for girls and settling down and you know that well enough. He's to join the Church and that's an end to it.'

But there had never been anyone else. They had been friends 
since junior school, often together, seen by many as a pair. He was her friend and then he was her boyfriend and she was not going to give him up without a fight.

Tim was frowning as he left the path and crossed the grass to confront her. Kathleen clutched her thin cotton dress, held it tightly at her throat. She had washed her hair and scrubbed her face and rubbed wild thyme between her fingers to dispel the odour of onions and the kitchen where she worked. She was only just seventeen and that she was already a woman had not gone unnoticed by the men and the boys of the village. But Kathleen had eyes only for Timothy Dolan.

It was a warm summer night, the moon a pale-blue globe, the stars bright in a cloudless sky. A warm yellow glow came from the windows and the open doorway of the Drummers' Tavern and there was the muffled sound of laughter and carousing from the drunken revellers.

‘What are you doing here, Kathleen?' Tim asked reprovingly. ‘What is it you want?'

‘You know what I want,' she whispered urgently.

‘But we've been through all this,' he told her. ‘I'm to leave in the morning. When you see me next I'll be wearing the collar.'

‘I want us to be married, like we always planned.'

‘Will you listen to me?'

She had moved back into the shadow cast by the old tree's overhanging branches and as he pleaded with her she gripped his shirt front and pulled him into the shadows.

‘Kathleen!'

Her arms were around his neck, her lips fastened hard on his, the compliant contours of her body thrust against him. He turned his head away but her lips followed. Briefly he wavered and their lips met again. Both his hands were on her hips and to her delight he was responding. Slowly, gently, she tried to draw him down to lie with her in the long grass. Tim felt his
resistance
draining away. He sank slowly, the softness of her body luring him down. Then suddenly, with a strangulated cry, he drew back. ‘No!'

It sounded strange even to him, like the voice of someone 
else. But he broke away, ran to the tavern, leaving Kathleen bereft, abandoned in the grass.

A swaying group of men, most of them inebriated, blocked the entrance as Dan stepped from the shadows and gripped his arm. ‘Tim! What is it?' he asked. ‘What's wrong?'

Tim turned away and went on running, across the grass and down the lane into the dark. Then Kathleen came running. But she came to a halt, backed away, smoothing her dress, when she saw the men. One of them said something in a low voice and the others laughed coarsely.

‘You shouldn't be out here, Kathleen,' Dan said, quietly walking her away. ‘There's nothing here for you.'

She was near to tears, her voice shaking. ‘I want Tim.'

Dan put his arms around her. ‘I know,' he said.

Kathleen buried her head against his shoulder. ‘He wants me, Dan. I know he does.'

‘Cry if you want to,' he said softly. ‘Let it all come out.'

‘But we're right for each other. He knows it. He's always known it. We had an … an understanding. There'll never be anyone else. There never could be.'

Dan held her close then he looked down into her eyes. ‘You must go home,' he said quietly. ‘Will I walk you there?'

She shook her head, seemed to regain some of her composure and tried to smile. ‘I'll be all right,' she said.

‘Sure?'

She nodded and reached up and kissed him on the cheek. Then she turned and walked away down the quiet lane. His brother Tim was wrong. He was sure of that. The Church was coming between two people who were clearly meant for each other. If Tim was as totally committed to the Church as he professed to be then fair enough. But Dan was not convinced. He had felt all along it was not really what Tim wanted. It was what Ma wanted. If Dad was here they might get him to put a stop to it. But if Dad was here all this priest business might never have started in the first place.

He found Tim sitting by the slow-moving river that ran alongside the churchyard. The moonlight gave the assortment of 
headstones and crosses a ghostly glow as Dan wondered what the dead would say if they could rise up and speak. There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. There is no God, for God's sake! All there is, all we can hope for in this world is someone to care for. Would that be it?

Some of the headstones were upright, some were sloping and some had sunk with the weight of the years. A new stone stood white and proud with fresh flowers at its feet but most of the graves looked neglected and forgotten. Tim had run here in search of solace at a shrine to the Virgin Mary. He had knelt before the pale-blue and white statue.

‘Hail Mary, Mother of God,' he prayed. He felt ashamed. He had given way to a temptation of the flesh. He must be strong, maintain control. What happened was wrong. He had betrayed his calling. But he knew, too, if he was honest, he had betrayed Kathleen. He ought to have made his true intentions clear, much clearer and much sooner. The truth was he was confused, drawn in two directions, too weak to take a stand.

He had gazed in peace at the serenity of the Virgin and, as fanciful as ever, he believed he saw a reassuring smile in the fixed expression. It was there. He was certain it was there. A gentle smile. And as he watched the face seemed to change into that of his mother. He had stumbled away in confusion.

‘For God's sake, Tim, what are you doing?'

Tim came to his feet, embarrassed, glad that it was only Dan and that Michael was not with him. Michael was a non-believer. He only feigned belief to avoid a confrontation with their mother. Even as a boy at school Michael had questioned and dared to ridicule the teachings of the Church. How could a man walk on water? he asked. And, with much hilarity until he was ejected from the classroom by his ear, how could a man change water into wine? Why, such a man would make a fortune at the Drummers'.

The cane, wielded ferociously by an outraged nun, and a letter of impending doom to his mother had left him in a frowned upon limbo and for the sake of a fragile peace he had accepted the imposed lessons in elementary theology from his parish priest. But his scepticism had never wavered. 

Michael had kept his views to himself in recent months, since he and Dan had decided to seek a new life in America in fact. He knew he could never shake his mother's unquestioning faith even if he wanted to. She was the kind of woman who keeps a bowl of holy water in the lobby and a crucifix in every room, the kind of woman who goes on ‘retreat' twice a year to beg forgiveness for her sins when her biggest ‘sin' was a glass of sherry at Christmas.

Tim stood up. ‘I'm going home.'

‘What about Kathleen?' Dan asked quietly.

‘What about her?'

‘She was your girlfriend, Tim. All through school she never had anyone else. She never wanted anyone else. And neither did you.'

‘We were just kids.'

‘And now she wants to marry you,' Dan went on, ‘and spend the rest of her life with you. Are you sure that's not what you want?'

‘I'm going to be a priest.'

‘And is that what you
really
want?'

Tim brushed past him, evading the question.

‘It's your life, Tim. Nobody else's. Come with us to America. Things might look very different from over there.'

Tim laughed aloud, as if this was a ludicrous suggestion.

‘Ma won't always be here,' Dan said quietly.

Tim turned back, angry now. ‘What do you mean by that?'

‘I think you know what I mean,' Dan said. ‘Ma wants you to be a priest. She always has. But it's what
you
want that really matters.'

The implication angered Tim. It was his business, his own affair and he didn't want to discuss it. Not even with Dan. ‘I'm going to be a priest,' he said. ‘And that's that.'

‘Don't you feel anything for Kathleen?' Dan asked as Tim left.

‘A priest loves everybody,' he answered without looking back.

Dan followed him up the path out of the churchyard, leaving the argument for now. And as Tim trudged off, head down, in the direction of home he returned to where the 
drinkers were at last spilling out of the tavern and standing about in noisy groups.

Most of them were swaying with the drink, mindlessly carrying on whatever they were debating when the landlord's wife called time. Dan simply wanted to find Michael, extricate him from whatever he was up to and take him home.

‘Anyone seen Michael?' he asked.

One man, with a knowing grin, signalled with a little nod. ‘Sure and he went round the back, so he did.'

Dan weaved a way through the knots of mainly men gathered on the grass and was caught in a gauntlet of well-wishers. Take care now and watch out for the booze and those wicked, wicked women. If I was ten years younger I'd be coming wit' ye. If ye get to Philadelphia be sure to look up our Pat. Big man in Philadelphia. Big bag of wind, someone said and the hilarity erupted again.

Drunkenly, an old woman threw her arms around Dan's neck. ‘I remember the t'ree of ye,' she wailed. ‘Altar boys all. Little angels.'

With a smile Dan gently removed her arms and was at once assailed by his Aunt Molly. ‘Your Aunt Clare has done it again. She knows she can't hold her drink. Will you not lend me a hand to get her home, Danny? There's a good lad.'

Towering above his aunts Dan looked around for Michael but Michael was nowhere to be seen.

‘Sure and there's nothing the matter with me,' his Aunt Clare insisted. ‘'Tis this old fool cannot hold her drink.'

But they obviously wanted him to walk them home though home was less than fifty yards away.

‘Will we see you tomorrow?' Aunt Molly asked.

‘You must come in for a minute,' Aunt Clare said. ‘I think we can find you a little drop of something.'

‘No, no, really,' Dan said. ‘I have to go. We're leaving very early in the morning. About half past five. And I have to go back and find Michael.'

‘Ah,' Aunt Molly said. ‘You will have to watch that one on the other side, Danny. He's a little too fond of the colleens, I'd say.' 

‘The wrong kind of colleens, if ye ask me,' Aunt Clare added, as Dan tried to escape. ‘He was making a bit too much of that Hegarty girl early on and she of him. She is no good that one.'

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