‘Attention--the owner of an older-model white sedan with a dented body in the back car park, plate number 94-IH-18542. You have left your lights on.’
Like the other patrons of the café, I stopped eating for a moment and looked up as the announcement came over the speakers. Half the people facing me shook their heads no in response to a question from another person at their table. Near the door a man jumped up, hastily swiped at his mouth with a napkin, and dashed outside.
‘Oh, dear, that’s not yours, is it?’
‘No, Auntie, we bought the car last year. It has an 08 number. And the lights turn off automatically.’
‘I thought when she said a dead body in the back seat that Albert was up to his old tricks again.’
‘I don’t know anyone named Albert. And I’m positive that I know no one of any name who would leave a corpse in the back seat of my car. In any case, it wasn’t a dead body. The car has dents in its body, and it’s back of the café. That’s what she was saying.’ I raised my voice as loud as I dared in the restaurant. My aunt is growing deaf.
Aunt Mary regarded me uncertainly. I suppose she could tell from my face that I had shouted and was attempting to tell her something, but I don’t think she understood my explanation of the announcement. Sometimes when she gets a wrong notion, it is hard to dislodge it from her mind. ‘Perhaps I am thinking of someone else. My memory isn’t as good as it used to be. I’m certain I know someone named Albert and he had something to do with a dead body in the back seat of our car.’ She took a large bite of her burger and chewed thoughtfully.
Aunt Mary’s lapses of memory are becoming more and more serious of late, but her appetite remains strong. I try to take her out to lunch at least once a month. She does enjoy getting out. Unfortunately she favours a café alongside the highway just north of Letterkenny. I have tried to suggest other places, ones with better food, but she always insists on this café. She knows the owners’ mother—they attend the same church—and for her that is reason enough to patronise it. The café is large and boisterous, and I think that too is part of its appeal for her. She likes watching the people in the restaurant and the traffic passing outside the windows.
There are always families with young children, and that makes her happy. The progress from the door to the table is always brought to a halt when she stops beside some harried mother attempting to placate a fractious child and asks how old the ‘darlin’ is. No matter what number the startled woman says, my aunt invariably replies, ‘Oh, that is a good age. Well, enjoy her while she is young. She’ll soon grow up and become a teenager. She’ll break your heart then.’ My aunt then walks on, leaving behind a mother seriously contemplating abandonment of the beast before it reaches an even more obnoxious stage.
Most of the waitresses are older women who have worked at the café for years. They know my aunt and fuss over her, and she also likes that. She always orders the same meal. A large burger with chips. She eats everything on the plate, but her progress is slow. I usually finish as much as I care to eat about half an hour before she does. She also takes full advantage of the opportunity of being with someone to talk, and that further slows her consumption of food. I like to think that I am a favourite nephew and that my presence cheers her. I know from experience that patience is a necessity—that and a stiff drink waiting for me at home as a reward for a good deed performed in good spirit.
‘Perhaps Albert was a friend of your father’s. You look so much like Frank that I sometimes confuse the two of you.’
‘It could well be, Auntie. And was he in the habit of putting corpses in the back seat of cars?’
‘Well, Patrick wasn’t a corpse when they left our place. Patrick Noonan, that was his name. I remember it now. He lived in Port-na-Iolair.’
‘No, Albert. Patrick lived in . . . He lived somewhere else. You’re interrupting me so much that I’m forgetting my thoughts. I had the whole story a moment ago.’ She glowered at me and stabbed a chip with her fork. She held it up and examined it thoughtfully for a few seconds and then bit off about a third of it. She chewed slowly while looking out the window.
I waited for a few seconds to see if she would recover her train of thought. Sometimes she does. I was about to start a fresh topic when she resumed.
‘He pounded on our door after midnight. He was making an infernal racket. The countryside was much quieter back then, and it sounded much louder than it would now. The noise woke all of us up. Norah and I slept in the front bedroom and I wanted to look out the window. Norah told me not to. She was that frightened. Hissing at me, as if whoever was outside would be able to hear us if she spoke in a normal voice. “Mary Kathryn, get away from that window. You’ll get us all killed.” You would have thought the devil himself would come flying in the window if I peeked out. She tried to crawl under the bed, but that’s where we kept the presses with our winter clothes and there wasn’t room.
‘I stood at the side and just pulled the curtain enough so I could see out. There was a cart and a horse in the road. The horse was snorting and shaking her head. She didn’t want to be out at night. I couldn’t see the man making all the noise because he was still at the door. But there was another man lying on the cart. He was stretched out, and there was a cloth wrapped around part of his head. Then Da came in and pulled me away from the window and made me and Norah go into his and Mum’s bedroom, because it was at the back of the house.
‘Mum was in bed, with the bed clothes pulled up to her chin. She made us get in bed with her. She didn’t want Da to open the door. She kept saying, “Michael Gallagher, you’re not to open that door. I’ll not have that lot in my house.” But then Albert started shouting, and Frank recognised his voice. I don’t know how he knew him. Mum and Da weren’t at all happy about Frank knowing this man and him knocking on our door in the middle of the night, and the both of them went after Frank, “What have you gotten into now? You’ll bring the troubles on us.” They were that mad at him.
‘Frank paid them no attention. He never did when they scolded him. He went downstairs and opened the door. And there was lots of whispering at the door. Then Frank came back upstairs and said there had been an accident and Albert wanted him to drive Albert and the man on the cart to a doctor in Letterkenny. This man on the cart we had never seen before had been injured in a boating accident. We had the only car in the village then. Albert wasn’t the first to ask us to drive someone to a doctor.’
Aunt Mary paused to chew slowly on a bite of her burger. She was the youngest of the three siblings in my father’s family. She was six years younger than Norah and eight years younger than my father. When my father spoke of his sisters, Mary was always the ‘pretty’ one and Norah the ‘clever’ one. Mary’s reputation in the family and the village was that she was ‘slow’. In truth, she was simply average, but that counted for slow in a family with my father and the brilliant Norah. Both my father and my Aunt Norah were eloquent. Mary was born into a household of talkers, and at an early age, she apparently chose not to add to the babble around herself. For that she was called ‘slow’. To judge from the pictures, she was pretty, but so was Norah. ‘Pretty’ was simply a polite label for what the family regarded as Mary’s only saving grace.
Aunt Mary is 89 now. Unlike Norah, she married only once and was, as far as any outsider can ever tell of someone else’s marriage, content in her life with Uncle Michael. She had three children, one of whom died of polio when he was eight. My two cousins left as soon as they were adults, but they visit a few times each year. Unlike my father and Norah, she never ventured far. Her marital home was only a few miles from my grandparents’ house. She seemed not to care about that. She was interested in our life in Dublin, and she spoke with great knowledge of Norah’s far-flung travels. But never with envy or regret. She had the same interest in her neighbours. If others led more exciting lives, she was prepared to share their joys without begrudging them their happiness.
My childhood memory of her is of a slightly dowdy woman flinging open the door to her house when we drove up and rushing out to greet my parents and me. There was always a moment when she would enfold me in her warm arms and make some remark about how I had grown. Then she would usher us into her kitchen, and pour cups of strong black tea and set plates of cakes and teabreads and biscuits on the table. She liked to feed people, and she was, unusually for that area in those days, a good and adventuresome cook. If my mother protested feebly that we had just eaten or were on our way to our grandmother’s to eat, Mary would override any objection. Food was a sacred part of hospitality.
It’s strange what one remembers. Of Norah’s rare visits, I can remember in detail the stories she told of her life, the people she had met, the parties she had gone to. Our house was in constant motion when that whirlwind visited. Norah demanded attention and homage, and she got it, of course. She was entertaining and vivacious, but one went to bed exhausted from the animation of her living.
Aunt Mary, on the other hand, would sit at her deal table, the wood worn smooth and silver with years of pumicing, her elbows on the table, a dish of tea held in both hands just beneath her chin, smiling at us impishly as she told a story about her neighbours. I can’t remember any of the stories, just that she told them with great good humour and delight. She always enquired about my progress in school and my parents’ activities, and I think she may have derived more satisfaction and pride from our accomplishments than any of us.
You listened to Norah. Aunt Mary listened to you. That was the main difference between them. Norah was exciting, even Aunt Mary’s children felt that, but Aunt Mary had the heart. She was the one who relieved the pain. She knew more about that than Norah or my father. I didn’t appreciate her when I was younger. She was the boring aunt we had to visit when we stopped in the village and Norah was the exciting world traveller. But when I grew up and came to understand the value of ‘manners of the heart’, I learned to treasure Aunt Mary.
Perhaps she had dreams. If she did, she never spoke of them. She might talk of her hopes for her children and for me, but I would say that her hopes for herself, if there were any, had been put away with other childish things when she decided to cease speaking as a child. I wonder if anyone ever asked her about her dreams or thought that she might want to lead a life other than the one lived by everyone else in the village for generations.
She still lives in the house that she and Uncle Michael occupied for nearly sixty years. After my uncle died, my cousins arranged for a neighbour to check on her several times a week. The home health nurse stops by once a month. Aunt Mary is related to half the village, and she, like everyone her age, is watched. Not obtrusively--that would create an obligation. In the small world of that village, one never imposes charity on the neighbours. Help is often offered, but the automatic response is always ‘No, thank you for offering, but I’m fine’. If help is truly needed, one simply acts without asking or fussing. If my aunt’s lights are not on at the usual hour of the morning, a neighbour will knock on the door. If my aunt comes to the door, the neighbour will offer a prepared excuse--she just wants to chat for a moment, or she dropped by to see if my aunt will keep her company on a drive to the shops later in the day.
On the inevitable day when my aunt doesn’t answer the door, other neighbours will quickly be consulted. Someone will call the priest and the Garda. But before they arrive, one of the older women will be deputed to enter the house alone first to make sure that Aunt Mary is ‘decent’ and that even in death, especially in death, her dignity is preserved.
She was in hospital two winters back with the flu. The doctors were worried about pneumonia. She recovered but since then there has been a gradual deterioration. She walks very slowly now. A few years ago the cane was mostly for decoration, part of the costume of the old. Now she leans on it heavily and does not take the next step until her feet and the cane are firmly planted.
Each time I take her to the café, she dresses with care. For her, a visit to a restaurant, no matter how ordinary it may seem to others, is an event, and events demand adherence to certain standards. She wears a hat, not a headscarf, and a long black cloth coat. The wellies or trainers she uses when venturing out on the village streets are replaced by sturdy leather shoes. The loose trousers with an elastic waistband and the blouse and the fleece with a zipper in the front that are now her daily clothes are replaced by a wool skirt and a twinset. Although on the day of this story, the two parts were not twins. The jumper was light grey, and the cardigan was beige.
I had never heard the story she had begun telling. That fact alone made me wonder if it had really happened. My father and everyone else in his family cherished the stories of their lives. They retold them endlessly. By the time I was a teenager, I had heard them all. I would hear them countless times again. The Norah that I knew would have been the one at the window peeking out and would have rushed down the stairs with my father to share in the excitement of a night visitor. Certainly she would not have attempted to hide under a bed.
More and more, Aunt Mary’s stories feature herself in a leading role, one she seldom played in life. I suspect the story of Albert and Patrick happened to someone else, or perhaps it was something she saw in a television drama. She isn’t lying. She does seem to think that the events she relates really happened to her.
She turned her gaze away from the road and back to me. ‘I don’t remember what happened next. That happens more and more. I can’t remember anything. Soon I won’t be able to remember who I am.’ She looked so forlorn and alone at that moment. ‘That frightens me so much.’
I pushed my plate to the side and reached over and took her hand. It was colder and dryer than I expected, and the flesh had grown loose on the bones. ‘I heard Da tell that story more than once. He and Grandfather helped Albert move Patrick from the cart into the car. It was hard because they had to lay him out as flat as possible but the seat wasn’t long enough. And they had to be careful not to hurt him. Your mother finally left her bed, and she was upset because Patrick was bleeding. She made them put a pile of cloths under his head so that he wouldn’t bleed all over the seat of the car. And then you went and got a blanket to put over Patrick to keep him warm. You wanted to go along, but of course they wouldn’t let you go. It wouldn’t have done for a young girl to accompany the men.’
I watched her carefully as I spoke to see if the story I was crafting sparked any engagement. She eyed me warily at first, unable to match what I was saying against her memories or her imagination. But when I brought her into the story, she sat up straighter. When I paused in my narrative, she broke in.
‘No, they wouldn’t let me go. I wanted to, but they said I was too young.’
‘You were what? Eight? Ten?’
‘Twelve. I was old enough to go, but in those days they watched us so carefully. We weren’t suppose to know anything. Mum was always so frightened Norah and I would turn out to be wild. That was the worst they could imagine for girls in those days. That you would turn out wild and do something shameful. Of course, Norah did become wild when she went to London. But that was later.’
‘It was too bad about Patrick. If I remember correctly, he was a young man.’
‘Not that young. In his thirties. He had a wife and child. Well, more fool him then running about with a smuggler like Albert.’
‘Albert was a smuggler? Da never mentioned that.’
‘Oh, in those days, Port-na-Iolair was all smugglers. I don’t suppose your father wanted you to know that he used to associate with criminals. There were so many small fishing boats there before the harbour silted up. It wasn’t quiet like today. It was very busy, and there was a plant to salt the fish and an icehouse. They used to send fish to Dublin on the train every day. But everyone knew that the fishing was only a front. They all went out at night and brought in arms and men. And that’s what Patrick was. He was being smuggled back into the country. Sometimes the Garda would try to stop one of the boats and there would be a fight. I think that’s what happened that night. Patrick was shot. Did I say that?’
‘I knew he had been shot. Da did mention that part of the story.’
‘I suppose that’s why he died on the way to hospital. You know that long flat stretch just before Moncries?’
‘Well, in those days there weren’t many people living in that area. Not like now with that housing estate. And they didn’t have the electricity yet, of course. So it was very dark. And Frank didn’t put the lamps on because he didn’t want to attract any attention. There were plenty of people ready to report anything suspicious. And there weren’t that many people who had cars. Someone would have come round in a day or two asking questions about what they were doing out at that time of night.
‘The moon provided enough light for him to see the road. When they came over the hill, they could see lights far ahead coming toward them. So Frank pulled off the road and stopped behind an old shed. Frank and Albert got out of the car and watched between the boards of the shed. When the car got closer, they could see that it was the Garda. They waited until it was gone. When they went back to the car, they discovered that Patrick had died while they were waiting. So they put him in the shed and made it looked as if he had walked there by himself and stopped there to rest and then died.’
‘You must have been very worried waiting for Da to return.’
‘None of us could sleep. We sat up the rest of the night. Of course, we didn’t dare light the lanterns. So we waited there in the dark, Mum holding on to me as if she thought I would chase after the car. Da wanted to go out and check, but Mum wouldn’t let him leave us alone. Frank and Albert didn’t come back until the morning. Mum was so worried by that point that she didn’t say anything to them. She was so glad to have them back, even that Albert. She made him sit and have some tea and breakfast.’
‘I suppose the car was a mess.’
‘Yes. Mum made Da drive it around the back, and then sent Norah and me out with pails of water and brushes to clean the back seat. Most of the blood was on the cloths she had made them put under Patrick’s head, and she burned those, but we scrubbed the back seat for an hour and still couldn’t get all the blood out. The water turned red, and it stained my hands. I never could sit in the back after that. We couldn’t get it completely clean, and there was a dark spot. I knew it was that man’s blood, and I couldn’t bear to sit on it. But even in the front seat, it felt like we were riding with a dead man. I always had the feeling that Patrick was with us still. Even when Da finally bought another car and got rid of the old one, I still felt that Patrick was in the back seat. Even now sometimes I feel that. Can’t rid myself of that old man.’
She sat there lost in thought for a moment, haunted by ancient memories. Then her face cleared and she looked up cheerfully. ‘I would like an ice cream now.’
‘Do you want it here or would you like to go to that Maud’s farther on?’
‘Here, I think. Moira’s son owns this place. Did you know that?’
‘Yes, you’ve told me. Do you want to go shopping when we’re finished here? I can take you.’
‘Oh, I won’t impose. I know you want to get back.’
‘It’s no trouble. And I was thinking of imposing on you. Do you think you could put me up for the night?’
‘Oh, that would be nice. We can talk some more then.’
‘Yes, I would like that.’