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The Lilac Busby Maeve Binchy
Nancy was early, but then she always was, and she didn't like being seen there too soon. It looked as if you had nothing else to do if you arrived far too early for the bus home. The others all arrived rushing and panting and afraid they'd miss it, because if they missed it then they really did. Tom turned the key in the ignition at 6:45 and swung the Lilac Bus out into the road. That way he had them all home before ten o'clock and that was his promise. No point in going home for a weekend if you aren't in the pub by ten, that was his philosophy. It wasn't Nancy's, but she was compulsively early for everything. It was just her way. She went into a shop that sold magazines and cards. She knew a lot of the cards by heart from studying them on a Friday. There was the big one with tears falling down it: "Sorry I missed your birthday." They had the country papers in this shop, too, but Nancy never bought one. There'd be a paper at home and she could catch up on everything then.
She examined her new perm in the big round mirror that was not meant so much as a mirror as a deterrent to shoplifting. It was set high on the wall and at a funny angle, or she hoped it was. Otherwise the perm looked very odd indeed. She stared up at her reflection anxiously. Surely she didn't look like some small worried animal with fuzzy hair and huge terrified eyes. That's what she saw in the mirror, but of course that's not what people down at her own level would see? After all, everyone looked silly from this point of view. She patted her head and had another pang about the perm. It looked to her dangerously like those old-fashioned perms that people like her mother got in Rathdoon. The summer perm and the Christmas perm. Frizz, fuzz . . . tight curls growing out into what looked like flashes of lightning or electric shocks as the weeks went by. The girls in the salon assured her that she was mad to think this. She had got a modern perm, one of the newest on the market. Think what she'd have paid if she had to pay for it! Nancy had smiled grimly. Paid for it! At that price! Nancy Morris wouldn't have paid half that price or a quarter of that price for a perm. Nancy Morris had crossed Dublin to go to a salon where she heard they needed people to practice on. Models was the expression, but Nancy was more realistic. They needed heads with hair and smart people like Nancy found out which were the big salons with lots of trainees and on what nights their classes and demonstrations were. She had only paid for two visits to a hairdresser since she came to Dublin six years ago. That wasn't bad going, she smiled proudly. Still, it was done now, this perm, no point in peering up at herself and worrying. Better go across and get on the bus. Surely some of the others would be there by now, and it was well after half-past six.
Tom was sitting there reading an evening paper. He looked up and smiled. "Evening, Miss Mouse," he said pleasantly, and lifted her big suitcase up onto the roof rack with one easy movement. She got in crossly. She hated him calling her Miss Mouse, but it was her own fault. When she had rung to ask for a place in his minibus she had given her name as Miss Morris. Well, she was used to being formal on the phone--that was what her job was about, for heaven's sake. How was she to know that she should have said her first name and that he genuinely misheard the Morris bit. But it was very galling that he still refused to call her Nancy, even though he always called old Mrs. Hickey Judy and she could have been his mother.
"It's light for such a big case," he said pleasantly. Nancy just nodded. She didn't feel like telling him it was her only suitcase and she had no intention of going out and spending over a fiver on some kind of nylon holdall like the others had. And anyway she needed a big case: there were always things to take back to Dublin, like potatoes and whatever vegetables there were, and anything else that turned up. There was the time that her mother's friend, Mrs. Casey, was getting rid of her curtains: Nancy brought them back and they were lovely in the flat.
She sat down in one of the middle seats, straightened her skirt under her so that it wouldn't crease and took out her glucose sweets. They had jars of them in the hospital, and they always told her to help herself. She didn't eat them normally but it was nice on a bus journey to have something; the others often bought barley sugar or toffees, but what was the point of spending money on sweets when they were there for the asking? She unfolded a newspaper that one of the patients had left behind in the waiting room. She got a lot of her reading material this way--people waiting for the specialists were inclined to be forgetful about papers and magazines, and there was rarely an evening she didn't have something to read. And it was nice to have a variety, she told herself. It was like a surprise. Mairead didn't understand. Nancy's brow darkened when she thought of Mairead. All that had to be sorted out. It had been so unexpected and so unfair.
She held up the newspaper so that Tom would think she was reading and she went over it all again. Mairead coming in on Wednesday and walking around restlessly picking things up and putting them down. You didn't have to be a genius to know there was something on her mind. Nancy thought she was going to ask about the television again. They had a perfectly good black and white set, which was a bit snowstormish now and then but usually got a terrific reception. What on earth was the point of paying out a fortune renting a color set? And even a video: Mairead had once mentioned this as if they were some kind of millionaires. She had looked up from the telly, which was admittedly having one of its bad nights and you had to guess a lot from the soundtrack; but Mairead had wanted to talk about something much bigger.
"I've been thinking all week at work how to say this, Nancy, and I can't think of any proper way, so I'll just say it straight out. I want to share the flat with someone else, and I am going to have to ask you to leave. In your own time, of course, I'm not throwing you out on the road . . ." She had given a little nervous laugh, but Nancy had been too astounded to join in. "You see," Mairead had gone on, "it was never permanent. It was just to see what we thought. . . . That was the arrangement. That was what we said. . . ." Her voice had trailed away guiltily.
"But we've been sharing for three years," Nancy said.
"I know," Mairead said miserably.
"So why? Don't I pay the rent in time always and the electricity? And I contribute to the food from home and I got curtains for the hall windows and--"
"Of course, Nancy, nobody's saying you didn't."
"It's just . . . no, there's no reason, can't we do it nice and easily now, without quarrels and questions? Can't you just find another place and we'll still meet now and then, go to the pictures, you come over here one evening, me go to your place? Come on, Nancy, that's the grown-up way to do things."
Nancy had burned with rage. Mairead, who worked in a flower shop, telling her what was the grown-up way to do things. Mairead, who hadn't got one honor in her Leaving Certificate, ordering Nancy out of her flat. Her flat. True, she had found it, and when she needed someone to share the rent her aunt, Mrs. Casey, the friend of Nancy's mother, had suggested Nancy. Where had Mairead got these notions and more important, why? Who did she want to share with?
The worst thing was that Mairead didn't seem to know or care, she just said she would like a change. At this point Nancy had turned off the flickering telly and had settled in for what she thought was going to be a heart-to-heart where Mairead would tell her all about some star-crossed love. But no. Mairead was busy looking at the calendar. Would we say just over a month, like the middle of October? That would surely give her time to find somewhere.
"But who will I share with?" Nancy had wailed.
Mairead had shrugged. She didn't know, maybe Nancy could get a bed-sit on her own. She didn't do much cooking or entertaining, a bed-sit might be just as good. But they cost a fortune! Mairead had shrugged again as if it didn't concern her.
The following morning Nancy was having her tea in the kitchen--she never bothered with a breakfast since there was always food in the hospital, and what was the point of being a receptionist for all these doctors unless you got some perks like a canteen and glucose sweets? Mairead rushed in late as usual and Nancy asked her had she forgiven her.
"Forgive you, Nancy? What for? What in heaven's name for?"
"Well, I must have done something, otherwise you wouldn't be asking me to leave our flat."
"It's my flat and don't be such a clown. We're not married to each other, Nancy. You came in here to share my rent, now that bit's over. Right? Yes. That's all there is to it." She was gulping down a bowl of cornflakes and trying to pull on her boots at the same time. Mairead loved these boots; they horrified Nancy--they had cost a week's salary. For a pair of boots.
"What'll I tell them in Rathdoon?" Nancy asked solemnly. Mairead was startled.
"About what?" she had asked, bewildered.
"About us breaking up?"
"Who would want to know? Who even knows we share a flat?"
"Everyone: your mother, my mother, your aunt--Mrs. Casey--everyone."
"Well, what do you mean what will you tell them?" Mairead was genuinely surprised.
"But your mother, what will she think? What will I tell her?"
Mairead had lost her temper suddenly. Nancy still felt a shock just thinking about it.
"My mother is a normal woman; she's like everyone else's mother, including your mother. She doesn't think anything. She wants to know that I'm not pregnant and I'm not on drugs and I'm still going to Mass. That's all any mother wants to know in the name of God, those same three things. In India mothers want to know that or Russia or wherever, and it may not be Mass for them but it's something. People's mothers don't give two flying damns about their daughters sharing flats with people and whether they get on well or whether, as in our case, they drive each other up the wall. They just want to be told the essentials."
"We don't drive each other up the wall," Nancy had said quietly.
"No, well, irritate each other. What's the difference? Why bother your head explaining and telling and reporting back? People aren't bloody interested."
"Do I irritate you?"
"Oh Nancy, please." Mairead was stricken. "We agreed last night to be grown up and not to have pointless rows and recriminations. We agreed. Now look what you're starting. Of course people irritate each other. I probably drive you mad. Listen, I must go."
Nancy had a terrible day: she had looked at the prices of flats and bed-sitters and they were sky-high. The further out you went they came down a bit, of course, but she had to be within cycling distance of the hospital. There was no way she was going to spend her hard-earned money on bus fares. She had thought, too, about what Mairead had said. She couldn't think why she was irritating. She didn't smoke, she never invited rowdy people in like Mairead often did, people who brought a bottle of wine each and then went out for chicken and chips. She didn't play records loud--she didn't have any records. She did everything to help. Often she cut special offers out of the paper and collected vouchers for foods or detergents. She suggested often to Mairead that it would be cheaper to come home every weekend to Rathdoon, because people spend a fortune at weekends in Dublin and you could live free at home. How had she been so irritating?
Even this very morning she had asked Mairead if it was definite, and Mairead had nodded wordlessly. Nancy had offered to let Mairead have the weekend to consider her decision, but in a low, soft voice, unlike her harangue of the previous morning, Mairead had said there would be no considering and she realized that Nancy would be cooperative and start looking for another place straightaway.
She looked up at the sound of voices. Dee Burke had arrived; she wore her college scarf even though she had left UCD two years previously, and she carried a canvas grip, which she threw up on the roof herself. Tom was laughing at her.
"You'll be a discus champion yet," he said.
"No, it's to show you that women are genuinely liberated, that's all--besides, there's nothing in it except a couple of pairs of knickers and some law books I'm meant to be studying."
Nancy was amazed that Dee, who was Dr. Burke's daughter and lived in a big house covered with creeper, could talk about knickers to Tom Fitzgerald in such a relaxed way. It didn't even sound rude the way she said it. Dee was a law unto herself, though, and always had been. You'd think she'd have her own car, but she said that she wasn't earning much as a solicitor's apprentice. Still, Nancy would have thought that this minibus would have been beneath the Burkes. They were people of such standing in Rathdoon, they must find it strange that their daughter traveled with anyone and everyone. Dee never seemed to notice. She was friendly with everyone; with that tinker of a fellow, Kev Kennedy, that you'd try to cross the road to avoid; with desperate Mikey Burns and his dirty jokes. Dee was specially nice to Nancy; she came and sat beside her and asked, as she often did, about Nancy's work.
It was quite extraordinary the way Dee remembered the names of the doctors she worked for, and knew that one was an eye specialist, one an orthopedic surgeon and one an ear, nose, and throat man. She knew there was Mr. Barry and Mr. White and Mr. Charles. Even Nancy's mother wouldn't know that, and as for Mairead, she could hardly remember the names of her own bosses, let alone Nancy's.
But then Dee was nice and she had great breeding. People like that were courteous, Nancy always thought, and they had the manners to be interested in other people.
Rupert Green arrived next. He was wearing a very smart jacket.
"Merciful God, Rupert, is that Italian? Is that the real thing?" Dee asked, feeling the sleeve as Rupert got in.
"Yes, it is actually." Rupert's pale face flushed with pleasure. "How did you know?"
"Aren't I worn out looking at them in magazines? It's gorgeous."
"Yes, it's a second, or a discontinued line or something, but a friend got it for me anyway." Rupert was very pleased that it had caused such a stir.
"Well, they'd need to be a second or something, otherwise your father would have to sell his practice to buy it," Dee laughed. Rupert's father was the solicitor, and it was through Mr. Green she had got her apprenticeship in Dublin. Nancy looked at them enviously. It must be great to have such an easy way of going on. It was like a kind of shorthand in professional families, she noticed, they could all talk to each other at the drop of a hat. She felt a twinge of annoyance that her father, long dead, had been a postman and not a lawyer. The annoyance was followed by a stronger twinge of guilt. Her father had worked long and hard and had been pleased to see them all do well at their books and get secretarial or clerical jobs.
Rupert went to the backseat and almost on cue Mrs. Hickey arrived. Suntanned even in winter, she looked healthy and strong and as if she might be any age. Nancy knew she must be in her late fifties, but that was only by questioning people and piecing it all together. Judy Hickey worked in some kind of mad place that sold herbal cures and grain and nuts, and she even grew some of the things herself, which was why she came home every weekend to harvest them and bring them back to this shop in Dublin. Nancy had never been to the shop; Dee told her it was marvelous, that everyone should go and see it just for the experience of it, but Nancy took her position as receptionist to three of Dublin's leading consultants very seriously. It wouldn't do for her to be seen going in and out of some quack's shop, would it?
Judy went to sit beside Rupert in the back and Mikey Burns had begun to squeeze himself into the front seat. Laughing and rubbing his hands, he told them a joke about hairy tennis balls. Everyone smiled and Mikey seemed to be able to settle down now that he had told at least one dirty story. He looked out eagerly.
"Will I be lucky and get the beautiful Celia beside me or do I get Mr. Kennedy? Oh dear, just your luck Mikey, here comes Mr. Kennedy."
Kev sneaked into the bus looking over his shoulder as if he expected a guard to lay a hand on him and say "Just a minute," like they do in films. Nancy thought she had never seen anyone who looked so furtive. If you spoke to Kev Kennedy he jumped a foot in the air, and he never said much in reply, so he wasn't spoken to much.
Lastly, Celia came. Big and sort of handsome in a way, though Nancy didn't admire that kind of looks. She often wore tight belts; as she wore them when she was nursing, she had probably got used to them. They made her figure very obvious. Not sexy, but it certainly divided it for all to see: a jutting-out top half in front and a big jutting-out bottom half at the back. Nancy would have thought she might have been wiser to wear something more floppy.
Celia sat in beside Tom: the last person always sat beside the driver. It was only twenty to seven and they set off with five minutes in hand.
"I have you very well trained," Tom laughed as he nosed the minibus out into the Friday evening traffic.
"Indeed you have. No wee-wees until we're across the Shannon," said Mikey, looking around for approval, and since he didn't hear any he said it again. This time a few people smiled back at him.
Nancy told Dee all about Mr. Charles and Mr. White and Mr. Barry and how they saw their private patients on certain days of the week and how she kept their appointment books and shuffled people around and how patients were often very grateful to her and gave her little presents at Christmas. Dee wanted to know were they well thought of, the doctors, and whether people praised them. Nancy tried to dredge examples but couldn't. She was more on the administrative side, she kept insisting. Dee wanted to know whether she met them socially, and Nancy had laughed to think such a thing was possible. That was the joy of being a doctor's daughter, you didn't think class distinctions existed anymore. No, of course she didn't get involved in their home lives. Mr. Barry had a Canadian wife and two children, Mr. White's wife was a teacher and they had four children, and Mr. Charles and his wife had no children. Yes, she sometimes spoke to their wives on the phone; they all seemed very nice, they all remembered her name. "Hallo Miss Morris," they would say.
Dee fell asleep when Nancy was explaining about the hospital switchboard, which was very awkward, and how they had been looking for a separate switchboard for the consultants for ages, but maybe things would get better with the new set-up in the phone headquarters. Nancy was a bit embarrassed at that. Maybe she had been rabbiting on, possibly she did irritate people by talking too much about little things; sometimes her own mother got up and went to bed in the middle of one of their conversations. Mairead might be right. But no, that couldn't be, Dee had been positively pressing her for details of her working life, she had asked question after question. No, Nancy couldn't blame herself for being boring. Not this time. She sighed and looked at the fields flying by.
Soon she nodded off too. Behind her Judy Hickey and Rupert Green were talking about someone they knew who had gone to an ashram in India and everyone had to wear yellow or saffron. In front of her Kev Kennedy was half-listening as Mikey Burns explained a card trick with a glass of water. Mikey said that it was better if you saw it done but you could still grasp the point if you concentrated.
In front of them Tom was saying something to Celia; she was nodding and agreeing with it, whatever it was. It was very comfortable and warm, and even if she did lean over a bit in sleep and slump on top of Dee, well, it didn't matter. She wouldn't have let herself doze if she were beside one of the men. Or indeed beside Judy Hickey: there was something very odd about her.
Nancy was asleep.
Her mother was still at the kitchen table when she got in. She was writing a letter to her daughter in America.
"There you are," she said.
"All in one piece," said Nancy.
It wasn't much of a greeting between mother and daughter, when the whole country had been crossed. But they had never been a demonstrative family. No hugging and kissing, no linking arms.
"How was the journey?" her mother asked.
"Oh, the same. I had a bit of a sleep, so I have a crick in my neck." Nancy rubbed it thoughtfully.
"It's great to be able to sleep on that road, with maniacs screeching past you in all directions."
"Oh, it's not that bad." Nancy looked around. "Well, what's been happening?"
Her mother was poor at handing out news. Nancy would have liked her to get up, wet a pot of tea and come back full of detail and information. She wanted to hear the week's events and who had been home, who had been heard from, who had revealed what. But somehow it was never like that.
"Whatever happens? Nothing's been happening--weren't you here until Sunday night?" Her mother went back to the letter, sighing, "Do you never write to Deirdre at all? Wouldn't it be a Christian thing to write to your own sister in America and tell her what's going on? She loves to hear little things, you know."
"So do I, but you can never remember anything to tell me!" Nancy cried in complaint.
"Ah, will you stop that nonsense? Aren't you here the whole time? You only go up to Dublin for a couple of days in the week. Poor Deirdre's on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean."
"Poor Deirdre has a husband and three children and a freezer and an icebox and a sprinkler in her garden. Poor Deirdre indeed."
"Couldn't you have all that yourself if you wanted to? Stop grudging things to your sister. Have some bit of niceness in you."
"I've plenty of niceness." Nancy felt her lip tremble.
"Well, stop giving out about Deirdre then, and go on, take a sheet of paper and put it in with mine. It'll save you getting a stamp and everything."
Her mother shoved a writing pad across the table. Nancy hadn't even sat down yet. The big suitcase with the hard corners was in the middle of the floor. She felt this was a shabby welcome home, but she was also a practical person. If she scribbled off a page to Deirdre now, well, it would save her having to do it some other time, and it would please her mother, who might go and bring out some soda bread and apple tart if she was in a good humor. Nancy wrote a few lines hoping that Deirdre and Sean and Shane and April and Erin were all well, and saying she'd love to come over and see them all but the fares were desperate and it was much easier for them to come over this way because of the pound and the dollar. She told Deirdre about Mr. White's new car, and Mr. Charles going to Russia on his holidays and Mr. Barry's wife having a new handbag that was made from the skin of a baby crocodile and had cost what you wouldn't believe. She added that it was nice to get back to Rathdoon at weekends because . . . She paused at this point. It was nice to get back to Rathdoon because . . . She looked at her mother sitting at the table, frowning over the letter writing. No, that wasn't why she came home. Her mother was only mildly pleased, and if she weren't here there was the television or Mrs. Casey or the bingo or half a dozen other things. Sometimes on the long summer evenings, Nancy had come home and found the house empty and her mother out at ten o'clock. She didn't come home for the dance like Celia did, or Kev or Mikey on the bus. She had not got what you'd call friends in Rathdoon.
She finished the letter, "It's nice to get back at the weekends because the Lilac Bus is really very good value and you'd spend a small fortune in Dublin over the weekend without even noticing it."
Her mother was packing up for bed. No tea, no apple tart.
"I think I'll just make myself a sandwich," Nancy said.
"Did you have no tea? Aren't you very disorganized for a high-up receptionist?" said her mother, who went to bed without a word of good night.
It was a bright sunny September Saturday. The tourists were mainly gone, but there were always a few golfers around. Nancy wandered up the street with no plan. She could have bought a newspaper and gone to the hotel to have coffee, but apart from the money altogether she wouldn't do that. It was being uppity going in there sitting as if you were the type. No. She saw Celia's mother washing the step of the pub. She looked older, her face was lined like that Gypsy-looking Judy Hickey's. She called out a greeting, but Celia's mother didn't hear, she kept scrubbing. Nancy wondered was Celia still in bed or was she helping to clean up inside. Celia worked weekends in the pub, that's why she came home. Her mother must have made it worth her while, because it was a hard job to stand on your feet all weekend there after having stood on your feet as a nurse all week. But you'd never know the time of day with Celia, she was so tight with information or anything at all. It was odd to see her talking away to Tom on the bus last night; usually she looked out the window with a moon face. Not like Dee, who was so full of life and so interested in everything. Nancy often wished that things were different, and that she could call on Dee at the weekend, or go off somewhere with her. But she wouldn't dream of going up to the Burkes. Not in a million years would she call on the house. The surgery was a different matter, that was the way things were.
She passed Judy Hickey's cottage and saw signs of great activity out in the back. Big packing boxes were laid all around, and Judy was wearing old trousers and had her hair tied up in a scarf. The house itself was shabby and needed a coat of paint but the garden was immaculate. It was odd that so many people watered and weeded and kept the birds off for Mrs. Hickey, Nancy thought; she wasn't the kind of woman that you'd think people would like at all. She only went to Mass one Sunday in four, if that. She never spoke of her husband and children. They had gone away years ago when the young lad was only a baby; Nancy could hardly remember the time there were children in that house. Anyway, up and away with the father and the two children and not a word out of the mother. She never got the court to give them back to her; people had said there must be some fine secrets there that they didn't want to come out, otherwise she would surely have gone to law. And for years her working in this shop, which sold things gurus used out in the East and things that must be disapproved of, ginseng and all that. Still, Judy Hickey seemed to have more friends than a few. Even now there were two of Kev Kennedy's brothers helping her, and last week Mikey Burns was there with his shovel. Young Rupert would probably have been in the team, but his father was very sick and that's why he had been coming home every weekend.
Nancy sighed and passed on. A half-thought that she might help, too, had come in one side of her mind but flashed quickly out the other. Why should she dig and get dirty in Judy Hickey's garden for nothing? She had better things to do. When she got back home and there was a note on the kitchen table, she wondered what better things she meant. Her mother had scribbled that Mrs. Casey had called to take her for a spin. Mrs. Casey had learned to drive late in life and had a dangerous-looking old car, which was the joy of her heart. It had brightened life for many people, including Nancy's mother; indeed there was talk of a few of them coming the whole way to Dublin in it. The plan had been that Mrs. Casey and Mrs. Morris would stay at the flat. After all, Mrs. Casey was Mairead's aunt. Now there would be no flat and no Mairead. Nancy's heart lurched at the memory of it all.
And nothing for the lunch and no mention of when the spin would be over, and nothing much in the press or in the little fridge, nothing you could eat. Nancy put on two potatoes to boil and went across to Kennedy's shop.
"Can I have two small rashers, please?"
"Two pounds is it?" Kev Kennedy's father didn't listen much to people: he was always listening to the radio in the shop.
"No, just two single ones."
"Huh," he said, picking two out and weighing them.
"You see, my mother hasn't done the shopping yet, so I don't know what she wants."
"You can't go far wrong on two slices of bacon," Mr. Kennedy agreed, morosely wrapping them in greaseproof paper and putting them in a bag. "She'll never accuse you of getting the family into debt over that."
She heard a laugh and to her annoyance noticed that Tom Fitzgerald was in the shop. For some reason she didn't like him hearing her being made fun of like that.
"Oh, Miss Mouse is a great one to live dangerously," he said.
Nancy managed a smile and went out.
The afternoon seemed long. There was nothing on the radio, and nothing to read. She washed her two blouses and put them out on the line. She remembered with great annoyance that nobody, not even her mother, had remarked on her perm. What was the point of getting one if people didn't notice? Paying good money for one of the newest perms. Well, paying money if she had had to: fortunately she hadn't. At six she heard the banging of car doors and voices.
"Oh, there you are, Nancy." Her mother always seemed surprised to see her. "Mrs. Casey and I've been for a great drive altogether."
"Hallo, Mrs. Casey. That's nice," Nancy said grumpily.
"Did you get us any supper?" Her mother looked expectant.
"No. Well, you didn't say. There wasn't anything there." Nancy was confused.
"Oh, come on, Maura, she's only joking. Surely you've something made for your mother, Nancy?"
Nancy hated Mrs. Casey's arch voice treating her as if she were a slow-minded five-year-old.
"No, why should I have? There was no food there. I presumed my mam was getting something."
There was a silence.
"And there was nothing for lunch either," she said in an aggrieved tone. "I had to go over to Kennedy's to get rashers."
"Well, we'll have rashers for our supper." Mrs. Morris brightened up.
"I've eaten them," Nancy said.
"All of them?" Mrs. Casey was disbelieving.
"I only got two," she said.
There was another silence.
"Right," Mrs. Casey said, "that settles it. I wanted your mother to come back with me but she said no, that you'd probably have the tea made for us all and she didn't want to disappoint you. I said it was far from likely, judging from what I'd heard. But she had to come back, nothing would do her." She was halfway back to the door. "Come on, Maura, leave the young people be. . . . They have better things to do than getting tea for the likes of us." Nancy looked at her mother, whose face was set in a hard line of disappointment and shame.
"Enjoy your evening then, Nance," she said. And they were gone. The car was starting with a series of jumps and leaps.
What could Mrs. Casey have heard? What did she mean? The only person she could have heard anything from was Mairead, or Mairead's mother. What could they have been saying--that Nancy was irritating? Was that it?
She didn't want to be in when they came back, but where could she go? She had arranged no lift to the dance: she would as soon be hanged as to go out on the straight road and hitch all the way to the night entertainment--which she wouldn't enjoy anyway. She supposed she could always go to Ryan's pub. She'd be bound to know people and it was her own hometown and she was twenty-five years of age so she could do what she liked. She put on one of her freshly cleaned blouses, which she ironed with great care. She decided the perm was an undoubted success and gave herself a spray of the perfume she had bought her mother last Christmas and set out.
It wasn't bad in Ryan's; some of the golfing people were buying big rounds, shouting at each other from the counter: What did you want with the vodka, Brian; Did you want water with the Power's, Derek? Celia was behind the counter helping her mother.
"You don't usually come in here," Celia said.
"It's a free country and I'm over twenty-one," Nancy said snappishly.
"Oh Jesus, take it easy," Celia had said. "It's too early for the fights."
There was a phone in a booth and she saw Dee Burke making a call; their phone must be out of order at home. Nancy waved but Dee didn't see her. Biddy Brady, who had been two classes below Nancy at school, had got engaged and she was celebrating with a group of the girls. The ring was being passed around and admired. She waved Nancy over to the group, and rather than sit on her own she went.
"We're putting a sum into the kitty each and then the drinks keep coming and we pay for it until the money runs out," said one girl helpfully.
"Oh, I don't think I'll be here all that long," Nancy said hastily, and noticed a few odd looks being exchanged.
She waved at Mikey Burns, who was carrying two drinks over to a corner.
"Have you any pub jokes?" Nancy asked, hoping he might stop and entertain them for a moment.
"Not tonight, Nancy," he said, and didn't even pause. Mikey! Who would do anything for an audience! He was heading for the corner; a woman with her head down sat there; it looked like Billy Burns's wife.
Billy was Mikey's brother, the one that got the looks and the brains and the luck, people said.
There was a bit of commotion behind the bar and Celia's mother seemed to be shouting at her. It was hushed up, but Celia looked very anxious. One of the Kennedy brothers had stepped in behind the bar to help wash glasses.
Nancy felt a bit dizzy. She had drunk two gins and orange, which she had bought for herself, and two as part of Biddy Brady's celebration. She had had nothing to eat since lunchtime. She decided to get some fresh air and some chips in that order. She could always come back. She sat on the wall near the chip shop and ate them slowly. You could see the whole town from here: the Burkes' house with all that lovely creeper cut away from the windows so neatly. She thought she saw Dee leaning out a window smoking, but it was darkish, she couldn't be certain. Then there was the Fitzgeralds' drapery, Tom's family's business. His two brothers and their wives worked there, as well as his father. They had a craft shop now attached to it, and they made up Irish tweeds into skirts for the visitors. Mrs. Casey lived about a mile out, so she couldn't glare at her windows and imagine her mother eating lamb chops and looking at television, counting the days with Mrs. Casey until the Late Late Show came back from its summer break. When they had been planning the Dublin trip they had wanted Mairead and Nancy to get them tickets for the show, and Mairead had actually written and found out what the chances were. Nancy had thought it was madness of the first order.
It was chilly and the last chip was gone. She walked back to Ryan's and thought she would go in the side entrance and visit the Ladies' on the way. She nearly fell over Mrs. Ryan, who was sitting on the step.
"Oh, it's Miss Morris," the woman said with a very snide little laugh.
"Good night, Mrs. Ryan," said Nancy a bit nervously.
"Oh, Miss Morris, Miss Mean Morris. Mean as all get-out, they say about you."
She didn't sound drunk. Her voice was steady and cold.
"Who says that about me?" Nancy was equally cold.
"Everyone. Every single person who ever speaks your name. Poor Biddy Brady's crowd of girls, just to mention a few. You sat down and took a couple of spirits off them and walked off. That's class, Miss Morris, strong men have wanted to be able to do that and they're not."
"Why do you call me Miss Morris?"
"Because that's what you call yourself, that's what you think you are. And by God that's the way you're going to stay. No man would take you on, Miss Morris, a mean woman is worse than a nag and a slut put together. . . ."
"I'll be off, I think, Mrs. Ryan."
"Oh, I would, Miss Morris; those little girls in there have had a few drinks now and if you haven't come back to put a couple of fivers into their kitty, I think you'd be far better to be off."
"Put what into their kitty?" Nancy was stunned.
"Oh, be off, Miss Morris, I beg of you."
But her blood was up now. She pushed past the woman and went into the smoke and heat.
"Sorry, Biddy," she said loudly, "I went home for change. I hadn't my money with me. Can I put this into the kitty and I'm having a gin and orange when the round comes."
They looked at her in disbelief and with some guilt. Those who had been loudest against her were abashed.
"A large gin and orange for Nancy," they called; and Celia, who was working alone with only Bart Kennedy to help her, raised her eyebrows. Nancy Morris ordering large ones.
"They cost a fair whack nowadays, Nancy," she said.
"Oh, for Christ's sake, will you give me a drink, not a sermon," Nancy said, and the others all laughed.
They were singing "By the River of Babylon, Where I Sat Down," but Nancy was only mouthing the words.
Mean, Mean, Mean. That was what Mairead thought, what she told her mother and her aunt, why she wanted her out of the flat; that's what Mrs. Casey thought, that's what her mother had felt tonight, that's what the Kennedys' father had been jeering at in the shop. That's what Celia meant now, talking about the price of a drink. That is what Mrs. Ryan, who must have gone stone mad tonight, meant, sitting on the floor of her own public house in the side entrance.
But she wasn't mean: she was careful, she was sensible, she was not going to throw away her money. She was going to spend it on what she wanted. Which was . . . which was . . . Well, she didn't know yet. It certainly wasn't clothes, or a holiday, or a car. And it wasn't on dear things to furnish rented accommodation, and it wasn't on going to dances or discos or to hotels with fancy prices. And it wasn't on smart hairdressers or Italian shoes or fillet steaks or a stereo radio with headphones.
They had linked arms now and they were singing "Sailing" and swaying from side to side. Mrs. Ryan had come back and was singing with the best; in fact, she was standing up in the middle of the circle and playing the Rod Stewart role with somebody's golf club as a microphone.
Celia was pulling pints still; she looked at her mother with neither embarrassment nor pride--it was just as if she were another customer. Tom Fitzgerald was talking to her over the bar. They were very thick, those two. Tears came down Nancy's face at Mrs. Ryan's words. A mean woman. She wasn't at all mean. But if people thought she was, then she must be. Mustn't she?
Deirdre had once said she was a bit tight with money, but she had thought that was Deirdre being all-American and accusing people face to face of things. Her brother in Cork had once said that she must own massive property up in Dublin now, what with her earning a good salary and paying hardly a penny out a week except her rent and the Lilac Bus. She had said nonsense, that it cost a packet to live in Dublin. He had pointed out that she had a bicycle and she got a three-course meal in the hospital at midday, and what else did she spend it on? The conversation had ended fairly unsatisfactorily, she had thought. Now she realized that he was saying she was mean. Mean.
Suppose people really thought she was mean? Should she explain that it wasn't meanness, and she was only making sure she didn't throw money away? No, somehow it was one of those things that you couldn't explain. It was either there, the belief, or it wasn't there. And so, unfair as it was, she was now going to have to go overboard the other way.
Tomorrow she would suggest to her mother that she take them both to a nice Sunday lunch in the hotel as a treat. It was too late to do anything about Mairead, there was no promising to be more generous or to spend more or whatever it was people wanted. And maybe she could get some posters of Ireland and send them to Deirdre's children. Happy birthday Shane or April or Erin from your auntie Nancy in the Emerald Isle. And to the silent brother in Cork, some book about fishing and a pressing invitation to visit her when next he came up for the Spring Show.
It must work: look at Biddy Brady's party, they were delighted with her. But why shouldn't they be, she had put ten whole pounds into their bowl on the table. But it seemed to please them a lot and they were raising their glasses a bit crookedly and saying Nancy Whiskey and things to her that they'd never have said otherwise.
There was no sign of Mrs. Ryan; she had gone out again after her party piece. Nancy would like to have thanked her. Because now she had a lot of problems licked. And the great thing, the really great thing was this: It needn't cost a lot of money. In fact, if she was very careful, it need cost hardly anything. She could take a lot of those glucose sweets and put them in a box, say, that could be a present for her mother one week. And she could give as presents those paperweights that she got from the drug companies--sometimes you could hardly see the name of the medicine they were advertising. And wasn't it just as well she had told nobody about the rise in her wages. She had negotiated it herself quietly, so no one need ever know about that at all.
From the Paperback edition.Copyright © 1992 by Maeve Binchy
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