My Dearest Love,
When will we meet again? It is only a few hours since I left you and I am full of melancholy thoughts.
Why did I think to-night of Con Hourigan, and that soft, wet night when the lights of Cork down in the valley were weeping through the haze and everything as still as before dawn and not a sound but the jolt of an old tram over the worn points or the drip on the old tin shed in the backyard? I am listening again to that silence drumming in my ears, waiting for my aunt to play the next card, and looking across the cosy eye of the fire in the range at Conny reading his evening paper and stroking his Moses beard. He lifts his eyes to look over his glasses at the tiny window and say, “Them bastards of slugs will be out in their marching orders to-night,” and he is just about to go out to his beloved patch of a garden to catch some of them when there is a rat-a-tat at the hall door. With a look at his wife and a look at the clock he goes out along the little hall and my aunt suspends her card with a “Who can that be?” We turned our heads when we heard the voices rising and Conny shouting “No, I tell you, no,” and more loud voices and the slam of the door.
He came back, flushed; gave a hitch to his belly, sat down, growled “Bloody cheek,” and tried to resume his reading.
“Who’s that, Conny?” said his wife, still holding up her card.
“Three buckos from Blarney Lane. Asking me to give ‘em me six Easter lilies.” “Oh, law? And why so?”
“Some kid after dying. Up in Barrett’s Buildings. They want me to cut me lilies to decorate the coffin.” “And do we know them?”
“No more than the man in the moon. Name of Delurey. Molly Delurey. Died up in the Fever Hospital. The best I ever heard. God Almighty! To cut me six Easter lilies for some wan I never heard of in my life before? Did you ever hear the beat of that?”
But the aunt, of course, wanted to know all about it. Cork may call itself a city, but it is really a big town made up of a lot of little villages, and in each “village” everybody knows or wants to know everything about everybody else.
“Delurey? I don’t know anybody now of that name. We had a little apple-woman used to come here . , . Ah, no! She was a Minny Delaney. And how did they know you have the lilies?”
“Your brave milkman. Spotted them every morning coming in with the milk. I knew that fellow had his eye on the garden. He’s too bloody sweet to be wholesome. ‘Oh, haven’t you the grand geraniums, Mister Hourigan. Isn’t the verbena massive, Mister Hourigan.’ Making a big man out of himself—’Flowers? I’ll get ye the flowers. Go up to Mister Hourigan and ask him for his lilies. Tell him I sent ye.’ The cool, bloody pig’s cheek of him.”
The aunt played the card without looking at it, and forgot to take her trick. I suppose she was seeing the little coffin, or the child laid out on the bed in the back bedroom. The rain dripped softly in the yard. The fire purred.
“What they always do,” she ventured, “is to make a collection to buy the flowers.”
“That’s what I said to ‘em,” over his glasses. “They said there’s none in the shops. I don’t believe a word of it. And if there isn’t,” his voice kept rising and rising, “why did they come up to me for me poor little six Easter lilies? How fair they wouldn’t go down to Bolster has a glass house full of ‘em. Oh, no! Up to the foola! Me poor little six Easter lilies that I looked after, that I reared as if they were me own children. But these buckos have no consideration. ‘Go up to Mister Hourigan and tell ‘em I sent you.’ The . . . But what . . . Me poor little flowers. Who ever . . . God almighty I . . .”
He choked off into incoherence. I said, “Your trick, auntie?” But she gently swept the cards aside with her hand, and breathed rather than whispered, “The poor child.” Down with his paper, off with his specs.
“That’s all very fine but am I going to cut me six Easter lilies because . . . And aren’t they me own property? Aren’t they? Amn’t I entitled to do what I like with ‘em? Amn’t I ? And if I don’t want to give ‘em to ‘em what right have them cafflers to be coming up to me own hall door giving me lip?”
“Conny, I hope you didn’t have words?”
“And am I going to let a pack of Blarney Lane cafflers tell me there won’t be luck nor grace about the house if I don’t give me flowers to ‘em?”
“Conny! Conny! You refused the dead.”
He tore out of the kitchen. We heard the front door opening. I could imagine the dark and the haze and the smudgy lights down in the valley. He shuffled into the bedroom and struck a match. That was for the candle. I saw how the lilies in the makeshift glass house outside the window would be white against the dark and the rain and the smudgy lights. The wind wailed down from the convent grounds above the backyard. The auntie was slowly putting the cards away into the old cigar box. We heard the candle clattering against the basin and ewer and he came shuffling in along the linoleum of the hall. He blew out the candle and took up his paper firmly and began to read it. The auntie closed the cigar box and folded her arms about herself. She turned to the fire and was lost in the little fluttering puffs coming out of the coal.
“The loveliest funeral I ever saw was the time of Lord Mayor MacSwiney. All the bands. And the pipers. And the boys marching. And the Dead Marching Saul. Miles and miles of them. And the flag on the coffin. And all the flowers. And people in every window crying down salt tears.” Conversationally she enquired of him:
“Isn’t Packey Murphy buried up there with the Lord Mayor?”
“I dunno where he’s buried.”
“Aren’t they all together in the one plot?”
“I dunno who you’re talking about. Let me read me paper, woman.”
“Is it pretending you don’t know Packey Murphy from the Glen worked with you down in the gas house? Many a night he brought you home here when you had a sup taken. Didn’t the two of us stand outside there in the garden and the pipers playing him up the Western Road to the Republican Plot?”
Conny said nothing. Far away, through the haze, the same tram, now on its way home, jolted over the same worn points. The wind brought us the soft tolling of the nuns’ bell through the rain. Conny looked over his specs at the window and said,
“That’s a north-easter. There’ll be a flood in the river to-morrow.”
“Wisha, God help us. Once we’re dead we’re soon forgotten.”
“You’d be betther beatin’ your way home, boy. The last tram is gone.”
I hated to leave the warm kitchen. Somehow this talk of bands and processions and the dead and floods in the river and the nuns’ bell and the last tram had wrapped me into a cosy nest of Time and Memory and I remembered with pleasure how somebody had said “All Cork is out of the one eggshell”—and for the first time I understood it. I wanted desperately that Conny should give the lilies to the dead child and I felt bitter of him that he wouldn’t give them. The auntie said, “Would you give three of ‘em, Conny?” He roared at her, “No, nor wan, nor half of wan.” Her face got pale and venomous and miserable and she stabbed at him:
“I don’t think you’d give them to myself if I was stretched in the next room.”
After a moment he said, very quietly,
“Go home, boy.”
The wind blew the rain into my face as I drove down the hill. As I left his patch of a garden—it was about as big as a table—I saw the six lilies, calm as sleep, dim in the pale light falling past them sideways from the hall. The child’s face would be just as pale. Down in its’ hollow the city seemed to have locked all its doors against the wind. The lights were few. . . .
That was twenty years ago. Why did that moist, windy night come back to me in a flash, here, gone, when I walked into my dark bedroom to-night and saw the land under the full moon? That bleached sky, the white fields, the lights of Dublin bright as youth, drained me so that I had to lean on the window sill and let it sweep over me like a stone under water. It was like hearing an old, old tune from a brassband, or the sound of church bells on a wet Sunday morning, or the hoot of a ship’s siren on Christmas day. Frightening shadows under everything—a gooseberry bush, the cabbages, an ash can. And between shadows and moon there were only those bright lights, low down, and poised over them one long narrow cloud stretching from east to west like a scythe that was going to sweep the moon out of the sky. It was the sort of night that might make a man ache for love: but I was suffused with you, dear love, and should have been full of joy and content.
.That wet night was not like this serenely frightening moonlit night. All night the drumsticks of the rain beat on the valley. In the morning the river was in flood, and rafts of branches and reeds and wrack torn by the storm sailed on the muddy water through the city. Conny’s lovely lilies were battered flat, When he saw them in the morning he went back to bed and did not get up for three days. The aunt didn’t say a word to him, but everybody who came into the garden—including the milkman—was loud with commiseration.
After that I no longer envied Conny, as I once used to. 1 began in a vague manner to realise that his garden was a kind of torment to him. Or is it, dearest one, that all passion is an unhappiness? Are we always either looking forward to love, or thinking back on it, or so drunk with it that we cannot realise it?
The night is nearly finished. The moon is going down. The lights of Dublin are still bright. You are asleep, your black hair spread on the pillow. I hear a little wind creeping from the north-east. Dear love, when will we meet again? Let it be soon. Let it be soon.