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--- B I L L E M B L Y
A few days before Christmas in 1979 I thumbed from Dublin to Gorey, a small town in County Wexford, arriving in the evening as a light snow fell. I went immediately to Thomas Street, hoping to find a room for the night with a woman who had put me up s ome five months before. Knowing Irene was hard of hearing, I wrapped soundly until a light blinked on in the hall. A moment later the door was opened and Mrs. Breen, a raddled old woman, stood blinking into the night.
"Hello, Mrs. Breen," I said, snatching a watch cap from my head. "Jim Corban. I stayed with you last summer. During the festival," I said, trying to jog her memory.
"Why yes, I remember now," she said. "Tis Jim indeed. Won't you please come in?"
Stomping the snow from my feet, I stepped into the small, familiar hallway. "I don't suppose you have a room on such short notice," I said.
"No, I'm afraid not. Tis the holiday, Jim," she said. "You should have dropped a line, I would have gladly held a room for you."
"I didn't know I'd be coming, Mrs. Breen, but I'm sure I can find something. I thought I would try you first, though. How are you keeping?"
"Well enough, Jim, but there's nothing in town that I know of. My Kate is off to England, and with the holidays everyone is full."
"Something is bound to turn up, Mrs. Breen, I'm always lucky."
"You'll need it tonight, Jim, I should think. I'm after going off to mass soon, but won't you please come in for a few minutes. I've a lovely fire in the grate."
I set my pack aside and unbuttoned my coat and followed Mrs. Breen to the parlor where I had taken my meals for two weeks. A sod fire burned in the grate, a slow smoldering fire that warmed more from charm than efficiency. Mrs. Breen drew a second ch air to the hearth and asked if I would take a bite to eat, and I answered, "That would be lovely," a phrase I had acquired over the past months. Gazing at the fire I began to wonder where I might stay. Mrs. Breen and her daughter Kate, who also ran a B&B, had been my best hope. If nothing else, I allowed, I would get good and drunk and tuck up in a doorway somewhere. I opened my coat and sat back, listening to Mrs. Breen scratch about in the kitchen. The sod burned to ash, I noticed, leaving a condensed likeness of itself.
"I'll have a room for you tomorrow, Jim, if it comes to that," said Mrs. Breen, returning with brown bread, cheese and a bottle of stout. "A gent from Cork will be leaving in the morning."
"Thank you, but I'll be going on to Rosslare in the morning, and from there to France. Please sit down and join me, Mrs. Breen."
"I've just taken my meal, thank you," she said, sitting down, "though I might take a drop of stout, if you don't mind. Mr. Breen liked his stout, I dare say a little too much, but I would always have a drop with him at Christmas." She offered a teacu p, her hand shaking terribly. "Not a word to anyone now, Jim," she said.
"Not a word," I promised, pouring half a cup. "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Breen."
"And to you, Jim. I'm ever so sorry I haven't a room for you."
"You can stop worrying about it, Mrs. Breen. So tell me, how have you been?"
"It gets harder every day, to be sure. I've had good business, praise God, but it's so much harder than it use to be. I'll have to think of giving it up one day soon."
"And how's Kate? I imagine she helps out when she can."
"Aye, she does, but she has her own. She's keeping well, thank you. She's in England now visiting her brother. She wanted me to go along but I'm deathly afraid of trains, and I couldn't afford to miss the business. You know about my son, do you," s he asked.
"Yes, Mrs. Breen. I'm sorry. It must be especially hard this time of year."
"Tis indeed, Jim." She gazed a moment at the fire, her head bobbing. "I fear I may never see him again. I don't know what sent him around the twist like that, I surely don't. It was more than Mr. Breen could face, I'm afraid. He took to drink and shame. Ach, but you don't want to hear about this. One little sip and off I go."
"It's all right, Mrs. Breen. I understand."
"We all have our troubles now, don't we, Jim."
It was at this point that Mrs. Kehoe arrived, knocking persistently, and Mrs. Breen became flustered. "She mustn't know I've been drinking before mass," she said, handing me her cup. "Would you be so kind as to answer the door while I rinse my mouth. "
I tossed off the contents of the cup and went to the door, admitting a stout old woman who appeared quite hardy for her age. I introduced myself as a friend of Mrs. Breen's, adding, "She'll be with you in a minute. She just retired to the loo when yo u knocked."
"I'm sorry I haven't the time to make your acquaintance," said Mrs. Kehoe, "unless, of course, you would like to join us."
"Thank you, but I don't have a place to stay tonight. You wouldn't happen to know of anyone who has a room?"
"No, and I wish you luck. You'll not find much tonight, I'm afraid."
I remember thinking, as I helped Mrs. Breen with her coat, that I would probably never see her again. She tied a scarf over her head and we all three stepped out into the snow. I walked with them to Main Street, where we said goodbye.
"I'm sorry to have let you down, Jim," said Mrs. Breen. "It's an awful night to be looking for a room."
"Don't think of it, Mrs. Breen. I have friends I can call on. Merry Christmas to you. And to you, Mrs. Kehoe."
"Merry Christmas, Jim. And do run along to your friend straight off."
I turned in the direction of French's Bar a few doors to the east. I had frequented this pub during the festival and felt there was a small chance I might see someone I knew. If not, I would drink until bar time and crawl into a corner somewhere. Th e prospect nearly appealed to me. Stomping the snow from my boots, I entered through saloon style doors. I had forgotten how small and dinghy the place was. A high narrow bar to the right, padded benches along the wall to the left. The ceiling was a brown leather or vinyl peeling away at the corners, and the shelves behind the bar were sagging under the weight of dusty bottles. There was not much hope here, I had to admit, gazing about at old, weathered faces. My acquaintances here had been D ubliners mostly, and a lad from Paris I hoped to connect with in a few days. I did recognize the bar man, John, and gave a nod, which was answered with a terse nod, though not what I would call recognition. I didn't suppose John would let me sleep he re, but thought I might ask if it came to that.
Setting my pack against the wall, I went into the back room, where a younger crowd was gathered at the bar, and I recognized a woman there just as she turned to see me. May Brennan. She was not from Gorey, Carnew rather, to the west. I had met her d uring the festival, and had even spent a night with her after a fashion. She had missed her ride back to Carnew so I took her to Mrs. Breen's, sneaking her quietly up to my room. I slept on the floor that night, slipping her out in the morning while Mrs. Breen was cooking breakfast.
"Jim," she said, hoping down off her stool. "I never thought I'd see you again."
"It's a bit of luck at that," I said.
She introduced me to her brother, Lorcan, who I remembered from the festival. A handsome lad who fancied himself a poet, and with good reason. "Remember your sweet mother when night falls," and "Quiver peacefully at love's gate," being two that come readily to mind. He had come to the festival to meet other poets and May had come along as his chaperon. He had been highly sought after, and not for his poetry alone, as I recall.
May and I retired to the front room where we took a table along the wall. I was surprised at how much she remembered of the festival and our few nights together, drinking after readings and concerts. A great deal of it was personal. One of the thing s she remembered was that I was writing a novel that was essentially a long love letter to a woman back in the States. A woman who happened to be married. She asked how the novel was going and, and rather than go into that, for it was not going anywh ere, I produced a photograph of the woman I was writing to. It had recently been sent to me. In the photograph the woman is holding a new born child, which I told May had been born in September.
"You didn't tell me she was pregnant," she said.
"I'm surprised I told you anything," I said. "We must have been very drunk."
And we got very drunk again. May was only seventeen at this time and her brother Lorcan only fifteen. I was thirty. I told her that I didn't have a place to stay for the night, that I was thinking of the Art Center, the side entrance, which was rece ssed, or the Church of Ireland up the hill, as I seemed to remember a sheltered doorway in back.
"You'll not be sleeping outside, Jim, I can tell you that. I owe you one, Jim," she said.
"But I may have no choice," I said.
And she said, "If it comes to that, Jim, I'll keep you company," but she was only joking as I recall, confident that she would be able to find a place for me.
So we kept on drinking with that photograph lying on the table of Beth holding her new born child, Amanda. At some point May went to the loo and returned, snapping her fingers as she sat down. "Your worries are over," she said. "You have a place to stay. I was just talking to David McCormack. His father owns the feed store up the street and he tells me there's a back room they never lock. It's full of feed sacks and rats, but you're welcome to stay there."
"I've become quite use to rats," I said, having spent the past five months in a stone cottage, making repairs on the place in exchange for rent. "I'd wake up at night to hear rats dragging sticks across the floor. This is perfect," I said.
"Did you ever think of me, Jim," she asked.
I told her of a dream I had had. In this dream I received a package wrapped in oil clothe. I opened it to discover a hollow tube made of stone. As I examined the tube, fire balls began to rise out in slow motion, and suddenly she was there, catching them in a basket.
"It's not bloody hard to interpret that dream," she said.
We kept drinking until bar time. "You're right, lads," called John, meaning it was time we all pack up and go home, or wherever it was we were going. I remember we all left the pub together, standing outside in the snow for a while, while May and Lor can conferred about their return to Carnew. Whether he would wait for her or not. Then May and I went off alone to find this back room. I stopped off at Mrs. Breen's, where I left a note in the mailbox, telling her I had found lodging for the night. Then we walked back to Main Street, passing the Railway Bar, where we had first met. Shuffling along, leaving long sliding footsteps in our wake, we turned off onto a side street and then again into an alley, and this alley led to the back of the f eed store. There we found that the door was indeed open, as David said it would be, and we stepped inside and listened for the scurry of rats, but heard nothing. The room smelled of damp burlap. One dust covered window allowed only a faint light, li ttle more than a soft luminescence. As our eyes adjusted we saw the numerous sacks strewn about, and May said, "Jay-sus, Jim, it's like Mary and Joseph in here."
The following morning I stopped again to visit Mrs. Breen, wrapping soundly on the door. She was a few minutes in answering, twisting a dish towel in her hands as she peered out into the bright morning. “Aye, Jim,” she said, “I half expected you. Come in, come in. The gent from Cork is just taking his breakfast. Will you be eating yourself, Jim?”
“No thank you, Mrs. Breen, I’ve just eaten.”
“I got your note just this morning,” she said. “Will you be staying with your friends again tonight, Jim?”
“No, I would prefer a room, Mrs. Breen, and a bath, if it’s no trouble.”
“No trouble a’tall, Jim. I’m pleased to be of service to you. If you’ll have a cup of tea, I’ll go up directly and put a towel out for you.”
“That would be lovely, Mrs. Breen.”
I set my pack down and went into the parlor to introduce myself to Eamon Connors. We were just discussing the ferry, canceled due to damage, when there came a knock at the door. I went into the hall myself, telling Mrs. Breen I would get it.
“Would you be so kind, Jim,” she said, coming to the head of the stairs.
I opened the door to a young man in a long wool coat. His collar was turned up and he had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. “I’m looking for a Mrs. Breen,” he said in a German accent.
“Is it a room you’ll be looking for,” she said, coming half way down.
“Yes,” he said, “I was to leave from Rosslare today, but...”
“Ach, and so I’ve heard,” said Mrs. Breen. “I’m afraid I’ve just given my last room to Jim here.”
I considered a moment letting him have the room, and then thought of spending a night alone in that shed and thought better of it. “I might be able to help you out,” I said to the young man, and to Mrs. Breen, “If you’ll just put my towel out, Mrs. Breen , I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Right you are, Jim,” she said. “You’ll be in the room at the end of the hall.”
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