Woman with Beautiful Car
On a chilly spring morning in 1913 in the west of Ireland, a young man assisted in the changing of a car’s wheel. The car was being driven by Roger Kelly, by night a consummate poacher, by day employed by the father of the young woman in the white double-breasted coat. Her name was Anthea, and she was the daughter of a successful speculative builder, Thomas Farrell, who, having made a fortune in Dublin, had retired to an estate in the country. Thomas was aware that Roger took most of the fish from his trout stream, but turned a blind eye to this, as Roger had proved himself indispensable in so many ways. These included being the only man able to humour their car out of its habit of stalling at awkward moments.
The car was a 1907 Standard Tourer, made in a factory in Coventry, and briefly owned by an exiled Irishman in Manchester who used it for a trip to Galway. Unfortunately he had died on the journey – ‘expired while travelling’, as his newspaper obituary put it. The car was stolen by the proprietor of the hotel in which its owner had died, and subsequently repainted and sold to Thomas Farrell. He had no idea that he was purchasing a stolen vehicle, and would have been appalled at the thought: he had always prided himself on the honesty – and general integrity – of his business dealings in Dublin. ‘They may say that I built slums,’ he said. ‘But I built decent slums, so I did!’
Thomas was proud of his standard tourer. ‘It’s a real beauty of a car,’ he said to his daughter. ‘Look at the seats, darling. Buttoned leather, with velvet trimmings. Just like one of those grand sofas, those . . . those . . .’
‘Yes, chesterfields. Look at them. And you see the high window at the front? See it? That’s called the windscreen, and the wood it’s made of is ash. The very best ash from some forest over in England. They make fine cars, the English – fine cars.’
She had not been particularly interested in these details, but enjoyed riding in the car, perched on the high passenger seat with the hood down and the sun on her face, although more frequently it was rain – that thin, drifting rain that fell in veils over their slice of Irish countryside.
Thomas Farrell had little use for the car, as he rarely went anywhere. There were occasions, though, when he was invited to other country houses, and since he was trying to establish himself with the gentry of the area it was important that he should arrive in style. His acceptance in the county, though, would always be half-hearted, as he failed every test that such circles applied, from religion to his table manners. In his undoubted favour, though, was the fact that he owned two thousand acres, and some of those acres were good shooting country, with pheasants and woodcock in abundance.
‘A touch of the gombeen,’ said one neighbour to another. ‘But such are the times we live in.’
‘Not a bad fellow,’ replied the other. ‘Close your eyes and block your ears and he passes with flying colours.’
Thomas was a widower, and Anthea was his only close family, apart from his two brothers in Cork, from whom he was largely estranged. He had waved olive branch after olive branch in their direction, to very little avail. One had borrowed money from him and never paid it back; the other had some vague, ancient complaint against him, dating back even into their childhood – something to do with a bicycle – the details of which now evaded even the bearer of the grudge.
Anthea had been educated at a small school for girls in Dublin. She had then been sent to England for a year, to a finishing school in Cheltenham, where young women were given instruction in deportment, French, and a few other subjects thought to be helpful in making a good marriage. As if to confirm this, she had received a proposal from the brother of one of her friends at this school, but had been put off him by the friend herself.
‘William is quite useless,’ the friend had warned. ‘I should know, as I’ve known him all my life. He would not make a good husband. In fact, the only place for him is the army.’
‘Oh . . .’
‘Indian Army,’ continued the friend. ‘And here’s another thing: my father feels exactly the same way. William is a great disappointment to him.’
It was unambiguous advice, and Anthea followed it.
‘You’re so kind,’ she said to William. ‘But I must go back to Ireland, as my father needs me there. I’m sure you will find a nice girl soon, and you will be very happy.’
‘I would have been very happy with you, you know. More than happy.’
‘That’s as may be, but I have made up my mind. I’m so sorry.’
He went into the army, as Anthea’s friend had predicted, although he did not go to India. In August, 1914, two days after he reached France as a young lieutenant, and within the first hour of his arrival at the front, he was shot dead at the battle of Le Cateau.
The young man helping to change the wheel was called Ronald O’Carroll. He was twenty-five at the time, and he was the teacher in the small National School in the nearby village. This school had only eighteen pupils, and Ronald ran it single-handed, although the Board of Education occasionally gave him a temporary assistant to help with the younger children. He had succeeded his father in the post: George O’Carroll had taught there for thirty years before he and his wife retired to a house left to him by an uncle in Sligo. Ronald, who had just finished at university, stepped right into his father’s shoes, not only taking up the job he had vacated, but moving back to the teacher’s house in which he had spent his childhood. This house adjoined the school, its vegetable plot being separated from the children’s playground by no more than flimsy fence.
‘Some men don’t go very far,’ said a woman in the village. ‘Will you look at that Ronald O’Carroll: raised in that school, sent off to Dublin for an education, so he was, and then right back where he started.’
‘True,’ said her friend. ‘But then he’s a nice young fellow – very good-looking, he is – and he’ll meet somebody soon enough. That’ll get him out of that school. I don’t think we need to worry too much about Ronald O’Carroll.’
There had been an overlap of two weeks between his return from Dublin and his parents’ departure for Sligo. It had been a strange spell for him, as they were living in the same house, with him occupying the same room that he had occupied as a boy, with his mother still cooking his meals exactly as she had done for as long as he could remember, and his father sitting in the same chair, smoking the same pipe that he had always smoked – one bowl a day, after dinner, filling the room with acrid tobacco fumes. It seemed to him that the same things were said too – things he had heard ever since he had begun to take notice of such matters – comments on the latest instructions from the Board and on the iniquities of the British government. His father made no secret of his sympathies, although as the teacher he was expected to be discreet. ‘There’ll never be peace until we see the back of them,’ he said. ‘Home Rule will just be the start. Then we can show them the door.’
Ronald shrugged. ‘And Ulster?’
‘Hot air,’ said his father. ‘Huffing and puffing. Carson and those fellows need to be taken by the scruff of the neck. If London thinks it’s the boss, then bring it home to them. But do they do that? No, because too many of them are in cahoots with them. They put them up to it. They egg them on, you know. They’re all over the shop.’
Ronald did not engage. Political discussion did not interest him. He liked poetry.
‘This man, Yeats,’ George said to Ronald when he returned from Dublin. ‘Did you ever see him in Dublin?’
‘Twice. Once in a hall. He read some of his works and I bought a ticket. Then I saw him in the street near St Stephen’s Green.’
‘Well, would you believe that? Walking along like any ordinary fellow?’
His father stared out of the window. ‘He has the right idea, so he does. Him and that brother of his – the one who paints. They have the right idea.’
It was an expression he used frequently – a general term of approbation – applied to those whose views accorded with his. Such people had the right idea, whereas those with whom he disagreed were “all over the shop”.
Ronald looked at his father. In a few days he would be away to Sligo and he would be here in this house by himself, the teacher, and his life would stretch out before him; a life of educating the children of the people his father had taught, sighing over the same families with whom little progress could be made – those Severins, for instance, with their thick necks and their dirty fingernails and their bovine acceptance of their lot. What was the point of teaching them? They went back to their unwashed ways the moment they left the school, never looking at the printed word, never thinking about anything except their fields and their ill-tempered pigs, and the wives they recruited down in West Cork and brought back to perpetuate the dynasty.
He saw that his father was looking at him, and he felt a flush of embarrassment. They had never talked very much about things that mattered – about what he wanted out of life, and how he felt about that place and the people he lived with, and about roads not taken.
‘One of these days,’ his father said hesitantly, ‘you might even get yourself married. I’m not saying tomorrow, of course – just one of these days.’
‘Oh, Da . . .’
‘No don’t just say Oh, Da, because you’ll need to, you know. You can’t live here by yourself for ever. Who’s going to cook for you? Who’s going to launder your shirts?’
‘I can cook for myself. I know how to fry an egg. And as for my shirts . . . what’s wrong with washing your own shirts?’
This brought a shaking of the head. ‘Mrs Mason won’t like that. You’ll be doing her out of a job.’
‘I didn’t say anything about that. She can stay. I’ve told her that. I’ll pay her exactly what you and Ma paid her.’
‘For less work? There’ll only be one of you.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
His father was thinking. ‘That girl, the postmaster’s daughter – the one who went to Galway for a few years and then came back. She’s a nice girl.’
‘I dare say she is.’
‘Dark hair and that skin . . . how would you describe it? Translucent.’
‘If it was translucent you’d see her veins. You’d see the blood vessels underneath. It wouldn’t be very pleasant. You’d have to say, What lovely blood vessels you’ve got.’
His father smiled, in spite of himself. ‘You may laugh,’ he said. ‘But I’m telling you, Ronald: I’ve seen many a man living by himself go mad. It’s what happens. Slowly, sure enough – but it happens.’
‘Name one. Go on – name one.’
His father closed his eyes. ‘You may think you know better than me. I didn’t go to Dublin, but I know a thing or two.’
‘Of course you do, Da. I’d never say you didn’t.’
‘Then listen to me. That’s all I ask: listen to my advice.’
He lay awake at night and thought of his life. At university he had mixed with people with a strong sense of where they were going, who were in no doubt about what they wanted to achieve and had already identified the milestones on that journey. He stood in awe of them – of the would-be bankers and lawyers, the aspiring civil servants, the company men who knew that in ten years’ time or even earlier they would be earning enough to own their own houses, belong to golf clubs, and support wives and children. By contrast, he would be living in a house that went with the job, not much better off than he was now. He would be able to afford to marry, but there would be precious little money left over once the household bills were paid. That was how his parents had lived, and it seemed that was how he would too.
A couple of days before his parents were due to depart for Sligo, he awoke at three in the morning. He had heard that time of day being called the hour of the wolf – a time of utter loneliness when every man is a stranger in the world, unhappy with the present and dreading the future. He lay in the darkness, shifting slightly to find the most comfortable contours in the mattress that had seen him through boyhood; when his parents left he would move into the bed they had occupied for much of their married lives – the bed in which he had, in fact, been born. That thought, more than any other, depressed him.
He made his decision, and lit the candle by his bedside because he wanted to see whether the idea would survive light, even the flickering illumination of a single candle. It did. He would tell his parents tomorrow. He would offer to stay, of course, until the Board found a new teacher, so it would not delay his father’s retirement, but once that was done he would pack up and return to Dublin. One of the friends he had made at university had said that his father had a business that was expanding and could offer him a job if he ever needed one. He would contact him – even send him a telegram to tell him that he was coming back.
‘I don’t want to stand in your way,’ said his father. ‘I’ve never done that, and I won’t do that now.’
‘I know that, Da. Thank you.’
His father looked at him, moving his glasses on the bridge of his nose; things were cloudier now than they used to be, and he would have to submit at some point to the operation that he so dreaded. ‘But I can’t understand why you want to give everything up. You’ll be all over the shop.’
‘It’s not giving things up. It’s making a change. There are all sorts of opportunities in Dublin.’
It was as if he had not been heard. ‘Why do you want to go off to London? A fellow can’t have much of a life there.’
‘I said nothing about London. I said Dublin.’
His father looked away. ‘The trouble with living in those places is that there are too many people with the same idea. Out here, you have the sky above you, the place to yourself, and a decent meal waiting for you at night.’ He paused. ‘You can put a bit of money aside each month. You can be comfortable enough.’
‘I’d like a bit of a challenge. All you say may be true, but I’d still like a bit of a challenge.’
This brought a wounded look. ‘So you think there’s no challenge? You think it isn’t a challenge to provide an education for these children? To make something of these . . . these little souls? To give them a chance – the only chance they’re going to get in this life, as likely as not? That’s not a challenge?’
He reached out to put a hand on his father’s shoulder. ‘I appreciate what you’ve done, and I’m sure they do.’ He thought of the Severins. One of the boys had been sent off to Letterfrack Industrial School for reasons that had not been made clear; they would sort him out there, his father had said, but he doubted it because he had not seen anybody improved by the cruelty meted out in such places. Shortly he would have three Severins under his care, trying to keep them from falling asleep in the classroom or stealing from the other children. Would anybody appreciate that? Would anybody even know about it?
His father took out his pipe and filled it with a plug of tobacco. ‘Couldn’t you give it a year? Just a year, so that people don’t think that I’ve just walked away from this place?’
Ronald tried to reassure him. ‘Nobody will think that. How could they?’
‘Oh, they will, you know. Father Morrissey for one. The people on the Board. Everybody, really.’
He looked at his father’s hands, tanned brown from the work that he did in the garden. He often looked at people’s hands and wondered about the work they had done.
‘Do you really want me to?’
His father hesitated. ‘Yes. Just a year. Then you can leave honourably. We will have done our duty by the school.’
His mother wrote to him from Sligo. ‘My dear Ronald, your father and I are very happy. I have never seen him more contented, as I hope you will agree, if you are able to come and see us at the end of this term. I think he has forgotten all about the school – already – after only seven weeks away! Can you believe that? For forty years, or close enough, it was his life, day in day out, and then in the space of a few weeks it was as if he had never been a teacher. I am astonished, but I think it’s good for him to have a whole new life.
‘He has been brushing up on his Irish. There is a man near here who has had some Irish poems published and they talk together. Your da says that his words are coming back to him. He says that they have always been there, but they have been asleep for a long time.
‘There is a woman in the village called Brenda Hallissey. She is a very good dressmaker and is teaching me some of her skills. I am making a waistcoat for your da out of some material I found in the attic. It is very thick tweed and I have to be careful not to get the needle in my fingers, but it will be a very fine garment I think. Brenda says that I have a talent for this sort of thing, but I am not sure whether she is just being polite. They are very well mannered in these parts.
‘Your da is planting potatoes and some beans too. He says that we can live off the land here once we get the garden broken in. The uncle let it go to weeds and it is taking a lot of time to get it sorted out. Your da says that we have all the time in the world now that he has retired, but I say that you never know when the Good Lord will decide it’s time to go, and so I have told him not to waste time in getting his potatoes and beans in the ground.
‘And make sure that you don’t waste time either. You know what I mean by that: do not wait for ever. The man who waits for the right girl may find that the right girl has herself not been waiting. That’s a thought – just a thought, but, like at least some thoughts, it happens to be true.
‘Your ever-loving mother.”
He first saw her when she drove past him on the road into the village. Because it had to serve another village as well the school had been built between the two, so that the children of neither would be unduly favoured or inconvenienced. This meant that Ronald had a half hour’s walk to do his shopping every Saturday morning. He enjoyed the walk, though, unless the rain was heavy, in which case he would take his bicycle, protected by the tent-like waterproof cycling cape that his father had used and had now passed on to him.
That Saturday was a fine day and he had been obliged to remove his jacket for the heat. Halfway through the journey, he had stopped at a place where the road for a brief time followed the shore of a lough, and there, under the shade of a rowan tree, he had sat on a half-buried boulder and looked out over the water. He was there for half an hour – he had plenty of time to reach the village before the shops closed at one o’clock; there was no need to hurry.
There were things to look at. Vetches – plants that as children they had known as poor man’s peas – grew along the ground here, their tendrils reaching out for some stalk, some salience that would allow them to grow upwards. It was death to eat these peas, they said, and a dead cow in a field would as often as not be pointed to as a victim; but he knew – because his father had demonstrated it to him – this particular variety was harmless: bitter, yes, but not poisonous as legend claimed. There were rushes too, and snipe would sometimes rise up out of these, or perch on some stone or tuft and launch into their characteristic song that sounded so much like a squeaky door being moved backwards and forwards on its hinges.
He heard the approach of a car – a rare event, as there were few motor vehicles in the area and if one were spotted then everybody would be curious as to who it was. He craned his neck to give him a better view of the road which was a good twenty yards away. The noise grew louder until, appearing from behind a rise in the ground, the car swept past him. He saw the driver, a man in a flat cap, and on the elevated seat behind, as if riding some winged chariot, a woman in a high-buttoned white coat. Her bonnet was kept in place by a veil tied over it and then fastened below her chin, but this was of light muslin and did not obscure her face to any great extent. She turned, and looked at him; she had not expected, he thought, to see a man under a tree in that remote spot, and he was sure he saw surprise in her expression. On instinct, he raised his hand. She returned the wave and then, in a cloud of dust thrown up from the unpaved road, the car disappeared from view.
He lowered his hand, still raised in salute, and in a sudden moment of needless embarrassment he saw that the thumbnail had a line of black dirt under it. He had dug out potatoes that morning and although he had scrubbed his hands with a pumice stone, he had missed the earth under that nail. She could not have seen it, of course, but now he prised it out with the tip of his penknife blade. He felt warm. He felt his heart beating more quickly, as if to remind him that something special had happened.
He stood up and resumed his walk. Who was this young woman and where was she going? She had smiled at him as she waved, but that meant nothing, he knew; she would have smiled at anyone who waved to her from under a rowan tree in the middle of nowhere – of course she would.
At the grocery store, Heaney’s, he asked about the car. ‘There was some sort of beautiful car went past this morning. A lovely piece of machinery. You wouldn’t know whose it was, would you, Mr Heaney?’
‘A car with a young lady riding in the back?’
He nodded, casually, trying to create the impression that the question was not important.
The grocer was measuring flour, and he dusted his hands on his apron. ‘Now that would be Mr Farrell. Well-off fellow. He bought that place up at Kilconnell – you know the one – ten miles over that way, maybe a bit more. Dublin man. Made a lot of money building houses.’
‘You’d need money to buy a car like that,’ said Ronald.
The grocer agreed. ‘But give me a jaunting car any time.’ He paused. ‘Why would you be asking?’
‘Just interested. As I said, it was a beautiful car.’
‘And the girl too,’ said the grocer. ‘That’s his daughter, Anthea. She comes in here from time to time, but not on Saturdays. She goes off then to see some aunt or other. Every Saturday. Nice girl, I’m told.’
He bought his supplies, packed them in the knapsack he had brought with him, and began the journey home. Every Saturday . . . If he were to wait on the road next Saturday he would see her again. He would wave, and it would be as if they were friends – of a sort. He wanted to meet her. He wanted to tell her about the school. He wanted to sit there by the shore of the lough and watch the snipe. He wanted to lie back and look at the sky with her, at its cloudlessness, and tell her how the sky made him dizzy to look at when it was empty like that; and tell her other things that he had nobody else to talk to about: how he missed the company of his father, and of his friends in Dublin; how he felt that while they were enjoying all the craic life was passing him by in this small place; how it somehow seemed that life was a sentence we had to serve in whatever way we could, hoping at least for remission at some point along the journey.
Once back at the house, he put his supplies in the food cupboard and went to the small living room at the front of the house. The afternoon sun warmed this room, and he could sit there and read the newspaper he had picked up in the village – published the day before – and look up the hurling results, which he followed closely. A friend from schooldays played an active role in the Gaelic Athletic Association and was keen for him to do so too.
He put down the newspaper and rose from his chair. He went outside, and stood for a while in the shadow of the house, feeling the breeze on his face. There was a smell of peat smoke, drifting from one of the houses further down the road; it was a smell that he had missed in Dublin, where coal, rather than turf, was used; it was a smell that reminded him that this was where he belonged. He felt unsettled – he had convinced himself that he could never stay in this place, but now he was not so sure.
He wondered if he could wait until Saturday to see her, but knew, of course, that he had no alternative but to do so. And it was while he was wrestling with this that he realised how he would be able to ensure that he met her next week. It was an outrageous notion, and he flushed with shame at the thought that he – the teacher – could do such a thing. It was almost as if the decision to act was being made by somebody else altogether – by some agency, some other presence, that was within him, operating through his mind, but at the same time nothing to do with him. This, he thought, is how it must feel to be possessed; to be aware that what you did was the act of something, some other person, within you that was not your real self, not the self that looked out on the world through your eyes when you awoke each morning, that accompanied you through the day, that experienced and remembered the things that happened to you, that whispered to you of memories, of love, of regret – of all that made us who we were.
He went that afternoon to the house of the local carpenter and his wife. They had two children in the school, and these children watched him through a chink in a door, awed by the presence of the teacher in their home on a Saturday afternoon.
‘You fix furniture, don’t you, Noel?’
The carpenter replied that he did.
‘Upholstery too, I hear?’
Again the carpenter nodded. ‘You’ll need to provide the fabric yourself.’
‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘I was wondering whether you could let me have some tacks. You use those, don’t you?’
The carpenter left the room. Through the crack in the door the children watched him. He saw their shadows at the bottom of the door, thrown by the afternoon sun shining directly through the windows of that room.
‘I know you’re there, Padraig and Brigid,’ he said in a loud voice.
The shadows froze, and then the carpenter returned with a small paper bag. ‘There’s about thirty in there,’ he said, handing the bag to him. ‘Will that be enough for whatever it is you’re doing?’ He paused. ‘I could come over and give you a hand, you know. There’d be no charge.’
Ronald shook his head. ‘That’s good of you,’ he said. ‘But not this time, I think.’
It was cold for spring, and he hugged his knees as he sat and waited for the sound of the car. Mr Heaney had said that she went every Saturday to visit her aunt, but he had not said anything about her going at the same time each week. Ronald was a creature of habit, who liked to keep to a routine, but not everybody was like that. She might have decided to go in the afternoon instead, or possibly in the evening, and he could hardly sit out there all day in that weather. He looked at his hands, and thought: These are the hands of a criminal. But then he put the thought out of his mind. I’m not stealing anything or harming anybody, I’m simply . . .
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an engine somewhere in the distance. It was a strained sound, as if it were struggling up a hill, but then it relaxed as the driver changed gear. Now it was louder. Sit still, he told himself. Look the other way – gaze out at the water of the lough.
He focused on a duck, an eider, that was leading a brood of early hatchlings in a sedate line across the surface of the water. He counted the ducklings. Six. And how many would survive the next few weeks? Two? One? In an attempt to keep his mind off the approaching car, he tried to envisage their fate: the fox, for whom they would be a tasty appetiser, a voracious rat, a harrier or other bird of prey.
He was thinking of birds of prey when he heard the popping sound. It was not very loud, but it was audible enough, and now he could legitimately stand up and look towards the road. The car had stopped, and the driver was climbing down from his elevated seat.
Ronald walked towards the road.
‘Having a problem?’ he called out. ‘Broken down?’
Roger Kelly turned round, surprised by his sudden appearance. ‘Blow-out,’ he said. ‘A flat tyre.’
Ronald shook his head. ‘Can I help you change the wheel?’
Roger gestured towards the rear of the car. ‘Thank you. I’ll get the jack and the spare.’
Ronald saw that the young woman was getting out.
‘What is it, Mr Kelly?’
‘A flat tyre, miss. Easily fixed. Especially with some help.’ He nodded in the direction of Ronald, who smiled, and glanced at her shyly.
‘That’s very kind of you,’ said the young woman.
‘Not at all,’ said Ronald as he stepped forward and offered his hand. She shook it.
‘My name’s Anthea Farrell,’ she said.
He gave her his name.
‘You’re the teacher at that school,’ she said. ‘The national school. That’s you, isn’t it?’
She looked down at the ground.
‘I am,’ he said.
There was something in her expression that puzzled him. She seemed amused.
‘You’d better help Mr Kelly. I have my camera. I shall take a photograph of the lough.’
‘It’s a fine view,’ he said.
She looked out over the water, as if seeing it for the first time. ‘I should like to walk round it one day. Have you done that?’
He felt the back of his neck becoming warm. ‘I have,’ he said. ‘I could show you, if you like.’
‘I would like that.’
‘Tomorrow?’ he said.
She adjusted her veil. ‘I think that would be very pleasant. We could fetch you in the car.’ She looked at the driver, who threw a glance in Ronald’s direction. ‘Well, Mr Kelly?’
He nodded. ‘As you say, miss.’
She smiled at Ronald. ‘Eleven o’clock in the morning?’
‘That would be perfect.’
‘Unless, of course, you’ll be at Mass then.’
‘I shall go earlier,’ he said quickly.
He helped Roger Kelly replace the wheel with the spare. As the punctured wheel was laid aside, the driver ran his hand over the tyre. ‘Two tacks,’ he said curtly. ‘You see? Here and here. Unusual, that.’
Ronald peered at the tacks as they were extracted from the tyre. ‘You’d think people would be more careful,’ he muttered.
The driver looked at him sideways.
Three months later, when summer was beginning to tilt towards autumn, the Standard Tourer, driven by Roger Kelly and with Thomas Farrell sitting on the buttoned-leather rear seat, drove slowly past the teacher’s house. A few minutes later, Thomas Farrell lowered himself from the car and walked, unaccompanied by his driver, to the front door.
Ronald answered the knock. He knew immediately who it was – even before he saw the car parked discreetly a short distance down the road. He stood in the doorway, momentarily unable to say anything.
‘I take it that you’re Ronald O’Carroll,’ said Thomas.
‘I am indeed, sir.’
‘Then you will invite me in, if you don’t mind.’
Ronald stepped to one side. ‘Of course.’
As he did so, he said to himself: You are not to be intimidated by this man. You are the teacher. You are a graduate of the National University of Ireland. You are not some ignorant . . .
They entered the living room. Thomas looked round it appraisingly. Then he turned to Ronald.
‘They told me that your father was a very fine man,’ he said.
Ronald had not expected this.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘He’s retired now. He’s living near Sligo.’
Thomas nodded. ‘So I hear.’
There was a silence.
‘We have somebody working on the farm, you know, who was taught by him. A fellow by the name of Severin.’
Ronald raised an eyebrow. ‘Yes . . .’
Thomas interrupted him. ‘They’re not a good family,’ he said. ‘Some of them . . . Well, the least said about them the better. But this fellow – the fellow who works for me – is different. He says that your father got him to make something of his life. He’s very grateful to him, you know.’
Ronald’s relief showed.
‘You’re pleased to hear that?’ said Thomas.
‘It’s a good thing to hear that of one’s da,’ said Ronald. ‘Who wouldn’t be pleased?’
Thomas crossed to the mantelpiece, where there was a photograph of Ronald’s parents. ‘He looks a lot like you,’ he said.
Ronald shrugged. ‘So people say.’
Thomas turned to look at him directly. Ronald tried not to flinch at the intensity of the gaze.
‘You’ve been seeing my daughter,’ he said.
Ronald took a deep breath. ‘We’ve been seeing one another, yes.’
‘Driving around in my car together,’ said Thomas.
‘She invited me,’ said Ronald quietly.
Thomas suddenly took two steps forward, bringing himself right up against Ronald. He reached out to grip the lapels of the younger man’s jacket. When he spoke, Ronald smelled something on his breath. It was not alcohol, but aniseed, he thought.
‘She’s hiding you from me, you know. She hasn’t wanted me to know . . .’ He broke off, releasing the lapels. ‘Kelly has told me. That’s how I know. My own daughter won’t speak about it.’
Ronald plucked up his courage. ‘Perhaps she thinks you won’t approve . . .’
This was brushed aside, but not in a tone of anger. ‘She’s all I have, Mr O’Carroll. She’s everything to me.’
Ronald did not reply. He was unsure what to say.
Thomas reached out to touch his sleeve. It was a curious gesture; one of supplication, it seemed. ‘So please don’t take her away. Please don’t take my whole life away from me.’
Ronald gasped. ‘I hadn’t intended . . .’
‘Please marry her,’ said Thomas. ‘Please marry her and then come and live on the farm. Don’t go off to Dublin like all the others. Everyone – going off to Dublin. We have two empty houses – fine buildings. I’d get one done up just for you.’ He paused. ‘And I’d consider myself honoured to have a man of your quality marrying my only daughter. I would be proud. If you are anything like your father, that is – which I believe to be the case.’
Ronald sat down. ‘I hadn’t thought . . .’
‘You think she might not agree to marry you? But, my dear fellow, she’s besotted with you. A father can tell.’
Suddenly the mood changed, and it seemed to Ronald that Thomas felt the matter was settled. He watched him as he moved to the bookshelf and reached for one of the books. ‘William Butler Yeats . . . I’ve heard that he’s your man. He’s just the thing this country needs.’
‘You read him?’ asked Ronald.
‘Not exactly,’ said Thomas. ‘Not as such. But then there are an awful lot of people who do.’ He opened the book and flicked through the pages. ‘He has a way with words, this fellow. You can tell, can’t you?’
Words. He thought of how he would have to work out what to say. He would ask her tomorrow.
And when he did, she said, ‘Yes, I would love to marry you, Ronald O’Carroll.’
She was smiling at him. ‘It’s strange how two tacks could change our lives, isn’t it?’
He looked steadfastly ahead. ‘Yes, it is.’
‘Or were there more?’ she asked, with a smile.