By Timothy Kenny -
Catherine Gallagher sat at a kitchen table in a snug, two-bedroom house in the west of Ireland, outside a town with the ungainly name of Gort. She watched autumn rain slide down a window that carried a spider crack along one edge. It seemed larger than the day before and Catherine wondered if it needed tape to last the winter.
She drank a cup of Barry’s Gold Blend tea as she looked out on her garden, sodden and disheveled. Catherine’s daughter-in-law, a woman named Maura, had just now asked did she know a boy growing up named Dermot Burke?
Catherine was a graceful woman, tall and calm, white-haired and thin, whose smiles were engaging, if sparse. She did indeed recall Dermot Burke, vividly in fact, and was pleased at the recollection of his name, long left unspoken.
I do remember him, she said. I remember him well. He left for America when I was fifteen. He was older than me by a few years.
My, that was a long time ago. Maybe the middle thirties, which sounded like ‘turties’ in her way of saying it. I was fifteen, so that would make it 1936. I missed him, after he left.
Catherine at ninety-two, was blessed with a memory that was both cogent and fulsome when allowed to unfold in its own good time. Her daughter-in-law often noted that Catherine’s math skills bettered her own.
I was told he went to Detroit and worked in an automobile factory, making cars I suppose. I’m not sure which one; it may have been Henry Ford. We did not hear much about him after he left.
Catherine well knew Dermot had gone to work at Ford, in a town called Highland Park that was surrounded by Detroit; everyone in Gort knew that. His parents mentioned with some pride how he sent money home every month. Few details about Dermot’s American life were certain, but that one was. Catherine did not know how much or how little to say about him. Being a private person had served her well in life.
Dermot never came back, you know, she told Maura, not even when his parents died or little Anya, his sister. She died before they did. Scarlet fever, I’m told. She was ten. Such a sweet thing she was, with her dark, curly hair. It was going around, you see, the scarlet fever. Little Anya was not the only one who died.
Why do you ask about Dermot?
Well, said Maura, do you remember my friend, Orla? She works at the Lady Gregory Hotel and one of the guests is a man named Bartholomew Burke. He told Orla that Dermot Burke was his father and wondered if there might be anyone in Gort who still remembered the family?
She thought of you and called me and I called you and here we are. She smiled.
Maura was fond of Catherine. She knew her quirks and had the patience to wait for a reply.
The thing of it is, said Catherine, this boy Dermot Burke was not of very good reputation. He wasn’t a bad boy. He didn’t steal or drink too much and get into fights, but he was lusty. He was a good looking lad, you see. The girls liked him.
They liked his attention. He knew how to talk to a girl. He didn’t brag like so many young men. He listened. He was a marvelous listener
A smile crossed Catherine Gallagher’s lips, a smile so brief her daughter-in-law missed it. Catherine remembered with utter clarity a chance meeting more than seventy years ago, no more than a chat really, on a country lane with a handsome, older boy, just the two of them.
She was on her way home from the dress shop where she worked after school. Perhaps it was not a chat; perhaps it was a passing conversation. But they were alone, the two of them, and she remembered him asking, How are you this fine evening?, touching her bare forearm as they stopped in the road.
I’m fine, said Catherine. Now I’m better than fine, pleased at her boldness, at the way she had given her own broad smile in reply.
Is that the truth now? said Dermot. And where are you off to?
They talked a bit more, about unimportant things. Then this strong-looking, young man with his easy ways leaned closer to Catherine and kissed her gently on the lips. It was a soft kiss, a kiss without passion, a kiss that said hello young lady. Perhaps he held it longer than he should have for such a kiss and she let him hold that kiss a moment too long, that kiss that had lingered for decades with Catherine Gallagher, who well remembered her long life’s moments, good and bad.
They turned away at the same time, laughing at each other, Catherine’s cheeks a sudden pink. The young man took four strides down the road and half turned to wave goodbye, to see if Catherine was looking back. She knew better.
She waited until the bend, where the road rolls right, before glancing over one shoulder. Dermot Burke had slipped away.
Catherine Gallagher could well recall that lush spring evening when she was fifteen and Dermot Burke gave her a first kiss on the lips and she was glad she let him.
Even yet, she had told no one but Siobhan, and that was decades ago
To Maura, Catherine said, He talked to me sometimes, but he wasn’t interested in me in a real way. Not pretty enough, I suppose. He was a handsome lad. People said he was lazy because he did not do well in school. That was not true.
He was a smart one, with a great wit. My mother kept an eye on Dermot. She used old words when she talked about him. She would say to me, ‘Don’t mind his plámásing.’
And what does it mean? asked Maura.
Plámásing? Flattery, said Catherine. My mother, God rest her, was telling me to be careful of his words, his way with words. She knew I should watch out for this boy, but she warned me with a smile. She liked him. Most everyone did.
His attention went to Siobhan O’Connell. Everyone said she was the prettiest girl in the west of Ireland, like Mary Hynes, pursued by the blind poet Raftery. Maybe it was true.
She was a pretty one, Siobhan; that’s what got him into trouble. And her. O dear yes, she got into trouble too, didn’t she? That’s what got them both into trouble. Dermot Burke was lusty and Siobhan was too, I suppose, although you wouldn’t know it to talk to her. She a shy one she was, a sweet girl.
We don’t really know people do we? And not when they’re young and they don’t know themselves atall, not who they are or who they’ll be, from one minute to the next.
Catherine Gallagher was disinclined to tell Maura about what happened to Siobhan O’Connell, the girl Dermot Burke impregnated so many years ago, before he fled Ireland for America’s Upper Midwest and left Siobhan on her own, shunned by the Church, her family shamed, taken by her parents one late Tuesday afternoon in June to a place called St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, thirty-five miles away.
Catherine wanted to visit Siobhan but had no way to get to the home and no way back and never did go. Besides, her parents forbid it. Siobhan’s parents visited once, after the baby was born and sold off. That’s the way Catherine always thought of it, that the baby was sold off by the nuns.
Catherine did not want to talk about her friend’s unhappy life. Dermot Burke was not a bad man, but he did some bad things. He was a coward, wasn’t he? And a scoundrel, she said out loud, unwittingly.
Who was? asked Maura.
Instead of an answer Catherine shook her head, unnerved by what she had recalled after so many years of firmly not doing so.
It’s Dermot Burke’s son from America asking after his father, is it? He’s here on a visit? In Gort? Come here to me now, she said to Maura. These were not trifling matters, what Dermot Burke did, what happened to Siobhan O’Connell. I cannot tell this man about his father.
What would you do if you heard such a story about your own father? And from a stranger? Does this man know about the baby atall? She would be his half sister.
Maura said, I don’t believe he knows much about his father’s life in Ireland. That’s why he’s here, I suppose, to find out more.
Catherine made a sound of disapproval, sliding her tongue quickly off the roof of her mouth. Fathering a child out of wedlock is no small sin, and then running off without a word. Ah, no. I won’t do it. Amn't I the one who should be worried? No, I won’t talk to the son of Dermot Burke about his father. And I’m not sorry about it.
Maura visited Catherine two days later, a schedule of visits they had developed over the years. She brought biscuits frosted with caramel and made tea and they sat in the kitchen and looked out the same cracked window to the same sodden garden that waited for spring like the rest of the western world.
Catherine sipped her tea, holding the cup by its handle, her left hand cradling the bottom to capture its warmth. The cup rattled in the saucer when she set it down.
She looked at Maura and said, Did I mention that I was a good friend of Siobhan O’Connell, the girl who carried Dermot Burke’s baby? We wrote each other off and on for some years after she left Gort – no, that’s not right. She did not leave Gort. She fled, didn’t she? One morning without a word she took the train to Dublin and then off to London.
Catherine paused, I’ve decided to tell you something, Maura.
Siobhan stopped writing to me because of the past. I think writing to me reminded her of Niamh – that was her baby’s name – and that unhappy time. A lot of Irish girls went to London then, for work. It was hard times. She died about six years ago. I don’t believe Siobhan ever knew what happened to her child.
Catherine looked at Maura and said in a voice that was steady and quiet, But I know. I know what happened to little Niamh.
You do? said Maura, surprised.
A couple from Belfast adopted her. They were wealthy; Catholic of course. The nuns from the home would have it no other way, as if that made things any better. I talk to Niamh quite often. She is now a woman, of course, not as old as I am but not young. But that is not her name now, is it?
A surprised Maura asked, You talk to Siobhan’s child? Recently?
Yesterday, as a matter of fact.
Catherine Gallagher finished her tea with a final sip, confident she had Maura’s attention.
Shall I go on then?
Maura nodded and leaned forward, her tea lukewarm.
Do you know the house outside town, just off the Clontarf Road? The one near the dairy? Do you know it?
Catherine moved on as if Maura did.
It sold two years ago. Very inexpensive I am told. Such a long time it was empty. I knew that house growing up. Not to visit, but I knew the people who lived there.
One day, the son of that house moved out suddenly, left to work in America. He never returned to Gort or to Ireland or to his family. They had a hard time of it after that. He sent money home but they all died within a few years of his leaving. The house fell to desperate ruin.
No one wanted that house, you see. It went to the bank and the bank held an auction and it was bought and sold over the many years but no one stayed. Renters, I suppose. And then it was – O, what do people call it, that bad housing problem a few years back?
The housing bubble? said Maura.
That’s it! The housing bubble. When the housing bubble came to Ireland the house withered and died. It was never home to another living soul. Did you see it?
Maura shook her head no.
Weeds knee high all around, the thatch moldy, rain dripping inside, windows broken. I’m told there were needles on the floor. From drug addicts, I suppose. I didn’t know we had such people here. It was a terrible sight.
Catherine looked past Maura, her eyes unfocused, as if she was watching the unhappy family who once lived in that house, the young man who left abruptly, the father who worked little and talked less, the mother who repaired clothing at the same seamstress shop where Catherine once worked; the daughter who died as a child.
I’ve been talking to a woman named Helen Patterson, who bought that house, said Catherine. She found me one day, I’m not sure how, but we began to talk. She’s fixed it up. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? It’s grand.
She lives in France, in the south where it’s warm, but comes to Ireland in the better weather and stays into the autumn. Maybe you’ve seen her in town? She helps out at the library; a well dressed woman, friendly. She taught at university in Belfast. Her husband has passed away.
She came to see me and now we visit. We have much in common, you see. Catherine paused and took another sip of her tea and looked over the rim of the cup at Maura.
O yes! said Maura, snapping her fingers. I do know the house you mean. Yes, it looks wonderful now.
Catherine nodded. I think your Mr. Burke should talk to Mrs. Patterson. I think it would be useful for him.
Maura looked puzzled.
I don’t understand, Catherine. Does she know something about Mr. Burke’s family, this Mrs. Patterson?
Why Maura, said Catherine, don’t you see, dear? It’s Dermot Burke’s old house that Mrs. Patterson lives in. The one her father grew up in. Mrs. Patterson is Siobhan’s baby, little Niamh, all grown up and with a new name.
She’s your Mr. Burke’s half sister, isn’t she?
Timothy Kenny's narrative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in more than two dozen U.S. and European literary journals. His 2015 essay collection Far Country, Stories From Abroad and Other Places, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.