Oyster Shell

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On St Patrick's Day, a passage from Entertaining Angels, my unedited novel of a dysfunctional family struggling in the aftermath of two World Wars as the millennium approaches.

 

Sibyl, a discontented widow, mother of Isabelle and grandmother of James, whose generations mystify her, reflects upon the day her father set sail from the Emerald Isle, never to return...

 

Sibyl had worried about the barbarian at the gate ever since she could remember. No doubt it was a legacy of the ethnic ancestor to which her mother, a jaunty Dubliner, had mischievously alluded from time to time. Bridie came from a long tradition of merchant seafarers so it was easy to imagine how such a thing could have come about. She had married Liam Locke, who kept The Wheel & Compass on the Dun Laoghaire waterfront, attracted by his brawny arms, brooding dark brow and silver-tongued blarney. All he lacked was an ass's jawbone. He said she had eyes to drown in, like a keg of Guinness, when she came to call her father from chimney settle to supper table. By now, he was mellow to bursting with tales of faraway climes. Fergus Collins was a renowned raconteur, a feature of the house, with his tales of deals closed at the eleventh hour and dewy-breasted slave girls in straw skirts, not so lippy as the fishwives from the Bay. The week after the wedding, the old salt caught a chill and reckoned it was time he weighed anchor on the heavenly shores. He was ready to go.

Bridie was a spirited lass who looked defeat in the eye and overcame it with a powerful sense of humour. She knew what it was to put on a brave face and make everyone warm to her cheer. She was a celebrity to imitate and a rock to depend on, so that her daughter's own strong will was naturally conquered. For several years, they had been snug as chick and hen together. Liam hailed from Coleraine and his folk still bedded there; neither Lough nor Liffey ran in his veins. In a fit of patriotism, he had gone to sea to put down the King's German nephew who, jealous of the British Empire, was creating a shameless dust in The Balkans to gain one of his own. The day he set sail from the Emerald Isle, they stood on the dock, mother and daughter, watching him go, astonished that he could leave them so blithely to keep a damned Protestant on the throne of England. Sibyl, hiding in the folds of her mother's skirt, sucked her thumb and hoped the King would be glad to see her Da. She was a full three years old, in a grown-up calico pinafore and square-buckled shoes. Last night, Liam had given her a wax doll to remember him by, dressed in sailor uniform. She thought she would call him Paddy, for he didn't exactly resemble her Da but the name rhymed with Daddy.
 

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The boat diminished to a pinhead and dropped over the horizon. "Gone!" Sibyl said in forsaken tones.

"Gone he is, child, that's for sure," said Bridie briskly, wiping a stray tear from her cheek. "Holy Mudder of God, will ya take that sleeve out of your mouth. You'll chew it to ribbons!"

Sibyl began to whimper, her hand imprisoned in her mother's. "I'm hungry."

"We'd best go and put on the tatty soup, then. When your Da's ship comes in, we'll eat oysters. That's a promise!"

Sadly, that was the last they were to see of Liam. Seven months later, his torpedoed vessel went down off the Port of Hamburg; he was swallowed by the deep and no proper priest to give him the last rites.

For all their adoration of him, for all their grief, they could not help feeling doubly betrayed. "Never forget, Sibyl," Bridie later instructed her, "your Da, God rest him, was as good as a Cartholic, even though his kin back in Antrim were wicked infidels!"

"What's infiddles?" asked the child, summoning an image of musical instruments that were out of tune.

"Why, heathen folks that don't know what's good for them and put the King in the Pope's shoes."

They went about Dublin with half of themselves gone and no one to go back to. O'Connell Street was no longer a proud thoroughfare but a seam of meaningless noise. Bridie had let go her playfulness. Her dealings with mankind, and not least with her daughter, were touched with an irony that kept her guard intact. She'd had to roll up her sleeves and serve behind the bar, keep brewers on their toes and cellar hands mindful of their duties, to say nothing of putting audacious patrons in their place. There were those who warmed mightily to her defensive ire.

 

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As the seasons passed, she softened and began to give out again, so that Sibyl basked in the sunshine of her undivided attention. Now and then, one or two gentlemen friends came upstairs. Sibyl heard their footfall on the linoleum, saw their shadows cross the crack of her open door in that twilight between reality and dreaming. They brought with them the stale fumes of the Taproom Bar, spilled stout, rye whiskey and acrid tobacco, the oily hemp smell of dockers' overalls that had to be lathered in Sunlight soap and scraped with a knife before they went into the copper. None of the guests stayed. They seemed to be an irrelevance in the new scheme of things. Liam had become a cherished but distant memory, a legend of valour. But Sibyl, poring over her slate and chalks, often paused to wonder where he was. She sometimes had a sense of him watching at her elbow.

Then, late one November afternoon, as darkness was descending and the harbour lamp haloes quivered in drizzle, the clatter of a shire horse filled the yard at the back of the tavern. Its cart rattled and clanked in so unstable a manner as to suggest that it was not a brewer's dray. Sibyl, just back from lessons, flew to the window and, peering down into the crowded shadows, could just discern a kind of metal frame being unloaded between its driver and Stephen, the barman.

The sum of its parts, it soon became clear, was a double brass bedstead which took pride of place in Bridie's room in exchange for the old chipped painted one. Out came the Brasso and torn bloomers; Bridie polished so vigorously that the gleam of the acorn knobs matched the brightness of her eye and the dent in the cup did not matter. Her hair tumbled down from its combs and rose tinted her cheeks. Sibyl could only gaze in awe at such frenetic activity which had supplied a sparkle to more than the room.

"I don't like it," she said sulkily. "Where did it come from?"

"Why, bless your life, Mr Finnegan brought it. Mr Saul Finnegan."

"The rag-and-bone man!" She had spotted him trundling his contraption of a cart about Temple Bar behind a tired-looking nag. He wore an aged greatcoat with a fedora and bright red scarf like a man she had seen in a French poster in the art shop. His long greying hair and beard made him appear older than his face, but what had arrested her was the peculiar intelligence of his gaze. "I don't like him, either."

"That's an unkind tongue you've got on ya, Sibyl Locke. I'll not hear a word said against him. He suffered in the trenches, went to war for his beliefs, just like your Da."

"Well, he came back!"

"To be sure, he's paid a tidy price for't."

"Was he wounded, then?"

Bridie nodded, lingering over her chore to hug the bedpost in a daze. "In the shoulder. But there's some scars never heal. Brave he was, a corporal, a gentleman of rank."

"What, old Whiskers-on-his-chin-agin! He just fetches clarty rubbish."

At this, Bridie rounded on her daughter in fury, yanking her by the arm and delivering a smart blow to her behind. "I'll teach ya some respect! You've an uncouth way wid ya, my quean! Mr Finnegan's a man o' great taste, a dealer in the foine arts! Now go to your room and you can recite foive Hail Marys before supper!"
 

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None of this augured well for Saul Finnegan's installation at The Wheel & Compass as Sibyl's stepfather. He and Bridie were married during the winter the partition of Ireland became constitutional. Sibyl was eight and painfully aware that her mother's brand new surname had, at a stroke, placed her at a remove.

Saul's presence about the tavern took a deal of getting used to. It was not that he was heavy-handed or domineering, far from it. His broken shout was kept for the street. At home he was gentle and soft-spoken and introduced Sibyl to the works of Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll and Louisa May Alcott, and to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He had been a schoolteacher before the war, Bridie said, in Liverpool.

At first, Sibyl resisted his engaging ways, unwilling to participate in her mother's treachery. She alone was left to keep the flame of Liam's memory kindled. And she was puzzled by the strangeness that came over her stepfather when he would sit quiet and withdrawn in his chair, seeing nothing. It frightened her, too, when he awoke abruptly from nightmares, crying out in terror and pain between sharp wheezing breaths, as though he were being strangled. Her mother's anodyne tones, which should have been reserved for Sibyl's ailments alone, would settle him.

In the end, Saul won her over. He was prepared to spend hours teaching her tricks with buttons and intersecting pencil lines, making her a toy yacht to float at the water's edge. Bridie was radiant and growing plump with contentment.

But it was not to last for long. The following autumn, Bridie was delivered of twins and the next year, triplets, all boys. Holy Mary, a blessed miracle! Father Murnaghan said. Bridie had been chosen by God to bring special joy to the world! He did not have to feed or bathe and change them, keep watch throughout the night daubing them with calamine when they came out in a rash, or burn coal tar to help them breathe through their spells of croup. If one fell sick, they all went down in succession. He did not have to scrub floors, make endless broth and boil heaps of soiled clouts. The neighbours rallied, but it fell to Sibyl to be her mother's second pair of hands. Her childhood was over. A litter of brothers now clamoured for Bridie's attention whose own health was nowhere near as robust as it had been. She could no longer cope with the tavern and the family was obliged to seek new accommodation in dingy rooms above a fishmonger's shop, not far from Saul's scrap yard down by the wharves. He did his best to turn a modest income, but a crippling darkness frequently came down on him.

It seemed to Sibyl, young as she was, that, were it not for the labour of women, the earth would cease turning.

On her shelf, in the room she'd to share with Callum and Davy, the twins, the model yacht with broken sails hove to against Paddy, the sailor doll, limp and lopsided. She took him down and shook the dust from him, overwhelmed with sudden loss that so much had intervened to pale her father's memory. From across the landing, Bridie called her to the table, but she ignored it. The second terse summons brought her to the kitchen door, still clutching the doll, sobbing uncontrollably.

"I won't eat it! I won't eat it! I don't want stew, I want oysters!"

"Merciful God and all the saints! What ails ya, choild?"

"I want oysters!"

"Don't be a little idiot! I've not the wherewithal to buy oysters, as well you know!"

"Be easy, Bridie, " said Saul placatingly. "Be easy on the child. We'll get to the bottom of this."

"But you promised," wept Sibyl. "You promised we'd have oysters when Da's ship came in, and it won't now, not ever, and we never will!"

Saul rose from his place at the head of the table, from the roughly-turned captain's chair that had arms where the others had not. Lifting a corner of Sibyl's gingham apron to blot her tears, he gently relieved her of the doll and put it to rest in his own bentwood rocker, leading her to the table. "Every voyage must come into harbour, colleen," he crooned, "though some be long and storm-tossed. This is the Heavenly Father's good food. And now we'll be sure and give thanks for't. In the War, we’d a bread ration scarcely bigger than what priests eat at Mass."

They ate in silence, while the fire blazed and crackled in the leaded range and the doll was melting into oblivion.
 

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© ©RosyCole2009, 2015

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