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"But she doesn't think . . ." Fergus began, but at that moment Nora Lynch, resplendent in a new hair do from the Rosemarie salon, in a new yellow dress short enough to be fashionable but not so short as to cause adverse comment from the canon, the nuns and the brothers, appeared on stage. She said she hoped everyone would enjoy this show, the first combined effort; she thanked the canon, the brothers, the convent and the sponsors, the children and the parents, and knew that everyone would have a wonderful evening. She said that as an outsider she felt very privileged to be allowed to get involved in something as much a part of the community as this was. But then in many ways she felt that she had always been part of this place and always would.
"How old are you, Fergus Slattery?" Kate whispered suddenly.
"I'm twenty-seven," he replied, confused.
"Twenty-seven years in the world and you try to tell me that young woman has no hopes of you. May God forgive you, I mean it, Fergus, may he forgive you and send you some kind of sense."
"Thanks, Kate," said Fergus, not knowing whether he was being attacked or pitied, and not liking it whichever it was.
Dara Ryan felt as if she had swallowed an ice cream whole; her stomach was cold and heavy and she wondered if she might be sick.
"I'll never be able to say it," she told Maggie Daly.
Maggie believed Dara could do anything. "You're great, Dara, you never minded saying it at school in front of everyone there."
"That's different." Dara hopped around on one leg and looked through the door that they were meant to keep firmly closed, to see how big the audience was.
"Lord, it's fullof people," she said theatrically.
"They'll love it." Maggie was loyal.
Dara would have fought with her shadow at this stage. "No, they'll hate it, it's in Irish, they won't understand a word of it."
"But it will sound terrific."
"Why don't I just go and make sounds then, nice sounds, or better still take up a gong and just bang it for three minutes and bow to the applause?"
Maggie giggled. Things were all right once Dara started making up outlandish things.
Maggie was not doing any solo piece. She was in the girls' choir which would sing Gounod's "Ave Maria," and later on come back and sing "I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree." But Dara would stand in front of the whole of Mountfern and recite "Cill Cais" which Miss Lynch had told them was a lament for an old house, a ruin like Fernscourt, except that it had been a different kind of household who had lived there, an Old Catholic family who used to have mass said in the stately home and everyone would come from far and near to attend it.
"Dara, you're on."
Crossing her fingers and giving Dara a squeeze for luck, Maggie Daly stood and watched her friend walk up on the stage.
Miss Lynch, knowing very well that hardly anyone would get even the vaguest glimmer of what the poem was about without some kind of translation, said that of course everyone knew the story of "Cill Cais," and told it without appearing to. The audience, flattered to be thought of as people who would know this, nodded at each other sagely and waited for the young Ryan girl to tell it to them again in Irish. Dara's voice sounded confident and she fixed her eyes on the back of the hall as Miss Lynch had told her to do. There was a storm of clapping and people told each other that she made a very good fist of it, then she was off and it was time for the choir from the brothers.
Brother Keane had chosen three of Moore's finest Irish melodies. He announced that the boys would sing them in the same magnificent spirit that Thomas Moore had brought to bear when he was writing them. Brother Keane had calculated without the enormously humorous content that the songs seemed to hold for his choir of twelve-year-olds, depleted as it was by six whose voices chose the time of the concert to break.
"Silent, O Moyle, be the roar of thy water,
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose."
Brother Keane loved this above all other of Moore's melodies. He could see none of the allusions to breaking wind, pulling chains and passing water that the entire group in front of him seemed to see written in letters of fire on their song sheets. He glared at them ferociously as with the most enormous difficulty the forty boys tried to stifle their mirth, and led them into the next song called, unhappily, "The Meeting of the Waters." The entire choir seemed to choke with the daring double entendre of the name and Brother Keane resolved to deal with them very sternly in a less public place.
The admission price had included tea, sandwiches and cakes. The sandwiches had been supervised by Mrs. Whelan who ran the Post Office and was generally accepted to be the nicest person in Mountfern. A small wiry woman with a skin that seemed to have been tanned by whatever sun shone intermittently in the Irish midlands or beaten by the winds that blew more regularly from one coast across to the other, Sheila Whelan had three cameo brooches she had bought from a tinker: a pink one, a green one and a beige. She wore them at the neck of her white blouses and had done for as long as anyone could remember. She owned about three skirts which she must have worn forever and a series of soft knitted cardigans which she must have made herself. Usually she was knitting for someone else, for the new babies that were arriving with great regularity around Mountfern, or shawls for the old, even school jumpers for the children who might need them. She always managed to have an extra bit of wool which she said it would be a pity to waste. She had a kind, dreamy face and far-away pale blue eyes that were never known to concentrate inquisitively on anything that might not bear too much scrutiny.
She seemed to have no interest in the private lives of the rest of the parish: she never appeared to notice, let alone comment on the emigrants' remittances that came home or didn't come home; nor did she seem to notice the disability pensions for people who were perfectly well, or the dole for those who were obviously working. She was able to discuss the most direct questioning about the whereabouts of Mr. Whelan with calm and even with interest, but without ever revealing that he had left her for a married woman in Dublin, and that the two of them now had four children. If anyone asked whether he was coming back, Mrs. Whelan was always able to get into the same interrogative mood and say it was very hard to know, wasn't it? She found that some things were almost impossible to work out, weren't they? And somehow the questioner found himself or herself enmeshed in the Meaning of Life instead of the specific whereabouts of Mrs. Whelan's husband.
She was the kind of woman you'd go to if you had committed a murder, Fergus Slattery had always said. And oddly, there was one killing near Mountfern. A farmer's son had attacked his father in a drunken fight and killed him. It was to the post office, not the presbytery or the Garda station that he had come, carrying the murder weapon, a pitchfork.
Mrs. Whelan had involved the presbytery and the Garda station, but gently and in her own time. Nobody had thought it even remotely unusual that the demented man had come to Mrs. Whelan nor had she made anything of the incident; she said she supposed he was on his way to the canon and her light had been on.
Nobody knew, either, that it was Mrs. Whelan who had encouraged the sandwich makers to cut the crusts off and to do just one plate each. That way she was sure of getting what everyone had promised, though it meant much more work for her. Fergus knew, because Miss Purcell had been fussing about whether to have chicken salad or egg and mayonnaise in her offering and this had meant at least three calls to Mrs. Whelan for discussion.
"You are the only sensible woman in this town, Mrs. Whelan," he began.
"What can I do for you, Fergus?" she asked simply.
"You mean I wouldn't say it unless I wanted something?"
"Not at all." But she waited.
"Is my name up with Nora Lynch?" he asked.
"Why do you ask?" she said.
"Because Kate Ryan, a woman I like and respect, told me it was, and as true as the day is long I didn't mean it to be."
"Well if there's any misunderstanding I'm sure you'll sort it out."
there any misunderstanding, Mrs. Whelan? That's what I'm asking you. I don't want to go sorting things out if there's nothing to sort out."
"Ah, nobody tells me anything, Fergus."
"But I'm only asking you about me,
not about other people."
"As I said, I've not got an idea in the wide world, but I know if you think that there's some confusion you'd be the man to clear it up. One way or another."
"By saying something out straight, you mean? Like "I don't want to marry you'?"
Mrs. Whelan's eyes were shuttered. Open but closed at the same time. They told him he had gone too far in his revelations. That she expected a solicitor to be even more discreet than a postmistress.
"Other people go to you with their business, Fergus, you're as much in demand now as your father, and that's your job after all. If there's a need for the right words you'll find them."
"You'd have been great as a prisoner of war, Mrs. Whelan," said Fergus. "The secrets would have been safe with you all right."
Fergus and Nora went for a drive after the concert. The last thank yous and congratulations had been said; people walked home in the sunny early summer evening. The older children had gone to sit on the bridge. The cinema had a special late start, so many of them headed to the pictures. Fergus had the car out ready and waiting. Nora Lynch came running over to join him.
Small and slightly plump, she had the perfect skin and apple cheeks of a picture poster. Her fair hair was curled carefully, and she wore a little lipstick but not enough to do any damage.
"I thought we might go up on the hill," he said as Nora put on her white jacket with the little yellow trim which matched her dress so well.
"The hill?" She was surprised.
"It's a nice quiet place to talk, and I have something I want to say to you."
Nora's eyes lit up with pleasure and her face was pink. "I'd love that," she said in a sort of husky way, not in her usual voice at all.
With a sickening lurch of his stomach Fergus realized that this pleasant, empty-headed, chirruping little teacher whom he had kissed a dozen times thought that he was about to propose marriage to her.
Slowly he started the car and headed for the hills.