If These Walls Could Talk

by Mary Walsh Foley

He sat heavily into the front seat of the navy Fiesta parked at the entrance of the train station.

“Are you tired?” She half turned to him, but he looked straight ahead and didn’t respond.

“You’re tired,” she said answering her own question in a quiet voice.

She started up the car. The remainder of the journey was conducted in silence. When she pulled up outside his bungalow, he heaved himself out, grunted his thanks and banged her car door shut.

His footsteps crunched the gravel. He jiggled the key in the front door, and it eventually opened. There was a small stack of post behind the door, junk mail and bills. Flinging his bag into the corner of the dark hallway, he made his way to the kitchenette.

He had gone to Dublin to meet her. He should have known. When they spoke on the phone, her words had been rushed and whispered. When he disembarked from the train in Heuston, he took a taxi. The driver, sizing him up in his rear-view mirror had grinned and had asked if he was in the capital for business or for pleasure.

“Neither,” he had answered.

The taxi dropped him at the end of Grafton Street, and he made his way through the buskers and the shoppers. She had said upstairs in Bewleys at 11. There it was, he craned his neck at the entrance and silently read “Bewleys Oriental Cafes”. Looking at his watch, it was only 10.30. There was a queue inside the door. The butterflies and colourful birds in the Harry Clarke windows caught his eye while he was waiting to be seated. He turned a coin over and over in his hand and coughed his nervous cough. The carnival atmosphere of people chattering, the clanking of delph and heels echoing on the tiles distracted him. By the time he was shown to a table upstairs and his tea and a scone with butter and jam had arrived, it was 10.45. Although he wasn’t hungry, he went through the ritual of slicing the hot scone and spreading the melted butter with the warm knife before smearing a generous portion of strawberry jam on each side. Licking the jam from his fingers he then opened the tea pot, stirred the contents with his teaspoon and poured it into his cup adding in three sachets of sugar and a drop of milk. He tidied the empty wrappers into a neat corner at the edge of the table.

He saw her before she saw him. She was hovering on the top step, her hand resting on the polished bannister, her hair swept back from her anxious face with a black velvet hairband. When she saw him she smiled wanly and glided towards his table. They half embraced. He inhaled her strong perfume. Unbelting and unbuttoning her caramel raincoat, she shook it into shape and placed it neatly at the back of her chair. When she took her seat opposite him, she exclaimed,

“That scone looks delicious.”

He nodded. However, when the waiter arrived with a menu, she told him that she only wanted a latte. When it arrived, she stirred it with the elegant silver spoon.

“I was delighted when I got your letter.” Her voice was soft with an American lilt.

He smiled and exhaled.

“So, what do you want to know?” she asked raising her eyebrows.

He hadn’t expected her to be so forthright. He looked around uneasily but the customers around him were lost in their own conversations.

“Why didn’t you take me with you?”

“Times were different then, I was young, my mother said that it was for the best, the best for you too.” She put her manicured hand on his and patted it.

“When I met Peter I was afraid that if I told him that I had given birth to a child back in Ireland he would never have married me.”

“But you never sent for me.” He hated how his voice sounded like that of a whining child.

Her look of exasperation was not lost on him.

“Peter never knew about you. He would have divorced me if I told him about you.”

He leaned back, the chair straining under him. She continued,

“Look, I’m sorry but I did what was best for you. You’ve turned out alright. You had a good life by the looks of it.”

“How do you know what kind of life I had?”

She pursed her lips and her eyes narrowed.

“If I had known that you were going to be this churlish, I would never had agreed to meet you. You sounded so sweet in your letter. I took a chance meeting you and this is how you repay me?”

“I’m sorry.”

He cast his eyes downward and it was her turn to look around as his big frame started to heave. He tried to muffle his sobs and then he drew a faded white cotton hanky with a blue border from his jacket pocket and dabbed his eyes. When he looked up, she said that she would explain everything but first he must pull himself together. He nodded, dabbed his eyes, blew his nose and took a drink of the strong warm tea.

“Sure, I’ll tell you why I didn’t take you with me. Daniel Kelly denied that he was your father and back then paternity tests didn’t exist or we didn’t know about them if they did. He was a big shot, the local creamery manager. The priest wouldn’t allow me put his name down on the baptismal records, but I got satisfaction putting his name as your father on the census form.” She paused, allowing herself a moment to remember with pride her small triumph.

“When I knew for sure that he wouldn’t marry me, my widowed mother insisted that I go to America. I remember her exact words,

‘There’s no point in ruining two lives.’

“It made sense at the time. You’d have to be there to understand. She said that she would raise you, but she insisted that I never return again to Ireland and that I would never contact you. I was simply honouring my mother.”

She took a sip of her latte and then dabbed her ruby lips with the serviette. Sitting back, her hands resting on her lap she entreated him to tell her about himself.

He paused, put his hanky back into his pocket and leaning forward he whispered,

“Thanks for coming to see me. Don’t worry, I’ll never bother you again.”

“Oh for goodness sake, don’t be so dramatic.” she exclaimed.

“I didn’t have it easy either, you know?” She continued,

“I arrived in Boston and had to live with the charity of a distant cousin until I found a job and had enough money to move in with the girls from work. I met Peter and for the first time in a long time I was happy. He adored me. He was very generous and he was good company. The day he asked me to marry him was the happiest day of my life. He had no close family, so it allowed us to live our lives in peace and privacy. There was one fly in the ointment though. When we married he wanted a family straightaway but I couldn’t get pregnant. He always thought that it was my fault but of course it was obvious to me that it was him. I knew then that I could never ever tell him about you.”

Then she mused,

“Maybe it was me, maybe my Catholic guilt somehow psychologically messed up my fertility, who knows? Maybe it was God’s punishment on a fallen woman?”

She smiled at her own dark humour.

“I told Peter I was coming over for the weekend to meet an old school friend who had gotten in touch.”

He had heard enough.

“I’m sorry but this isn’t what I was expecting, I’m going now. I won’t bother you and Peter again.” He had spat out Peter’s name. Her grey eyes widened but she nodded, accepting his decision. He stood up and half hugged her. She gripped his upper arm tightly but said nothing.

As he made his way down the stairs, he hoped that she might follow him, that she would call his name, tears streaming down her face, asking for forgiveness. He paused outside the door but the punters coming out after him were strangers. Thrusting his hands deep in his pockets, he made his way to the end of the street where the taxi had dropped him, the anonymity of the crowds providing a little solace.

He walked back to the train station, stopping occasionally to ask for directions. He sat at a window seat on the train and turned his back to the lady who sat in beside him, preferring to concentrate his thoughts on the scenery whizzing by and the sound of the powerful engine. When the lady got out two stops later and he was alone he began to think about the meeting, replaying it from start to finish. He had presumed that she would want to make up for a lifetime of being apart, that she would have smothered him in love and tears. What a stupid fool he had been. He had a good mind to ring Peter while she was making her way back to the States and fill him in. His mouth twisted in a bitter smile. It would serve her right. He would find the number when he got home, and he would ring him. Would he have the courage?

The only sound in his kitchen was the hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of the clock on the windowsill. The evening was drawing in and he sat drumming his fingers on the table. The shrill sound of the phone startled him.

“Danny? Danny? Can you hear me? Danny, answer me!”

She sounded desperate.

“What’s wrong?”

“Danny, it’s Peter. He’s, he’s dead.”

A cold shiver passed up his spine raising the hairs on the nape of his neck.

“The hospital just contacted me. He rang an ambulance but by the time they arrived he had passed away. He had a massive heart attack. What am I going to do?”

“When is your flight?”

“Not until tomorrow evening.”

“I still have my room booked in your hotel. I’ll come up this evening. I’ll get the last train.”

“Will you come over to the States with me Danny? I’ll never cope. Please Danny, think about it, even just for the funeral. I’ll book a ticket for you now. Please.”

“We will talk about it when I see you.”

He went into the bedroom and lay on top of the brightly patterned quilt. Closing his eyes he breathed in deeply and thought about all the times throughout his life that he had dreamed of this day, the day that he got the call from his mother to take him away from it all; his nana telling him that his mother had abandoned him and how he had been nothing but trouble, his neighbours with their wounding pitying glances and whispers. Whenever a helicopter passed over the house as a child he would run out and gaze up at it thinking that it was his mother coming to rescue him. He had left school early and worked for others in the bog or collecting seaweed at the shore. Some mornings when he was picking periwinkles he would gaze out across the Atlantic Ocean and wonder where his mother was and what she was doing. He wondered did she ever think about him.

Hoisting himself up, he sat at the side of his bed and nodded at his reflection in the mirror of his chest of drawers.

“Your wishes have finally come true.”

Yet still his nana’s words were playing over and over in his mind,

“Be careful what you wish for.”

© 2023 Mary Walsh Foley  All rights reserved.

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