The Copper Beechby Maeve Binchy
In the Irish town of Schancarrig, the young people carve their initials-and those of their loves into the copper beech tree in front of the schoolhouse. But not even Father Gunn, the parish priest, who knows most of what goes on behind Shancarrig's closed doors, or Dr. Jims, the village doctor, who knows all the rest, realizes that not everything in the placid village is what it seems. Unexpected passions and fear are bringing together the lives of so many, such as the sensitive new priest and Miss Ross, the slight, beautiful schoolteacher... Leonora, the privileged daughter of the town's richest family and Foxy Dunne, whose father did time in jail... and Nessa Ryan, whose parents run Ryan's Hotel, and two very different young men. For now the secrets in Shancarrig's shadows are starting to be revealed, from innocent vanities and hidden loves to crimes of the heart... and even to murder.
New York Times
"The Copper Beech is as soothing as a cup of tea."—People
"Binchy makes you laugh, cry, and care. Her warmth and sympathy render the daily struggles of ordinary people heroic and turn storytelling into art."—San Francisco Chronicle.
Read an Excerpt
Some of the younger children, dressed in the little white surplices of altar boys, stood ready to lead the procession up the town.
The sun shone mercilessly. Father Gunn had prayed unsuccessfully for one of the wet summer days they had been having recently. Even that would be better than this oppressive heat.
The Bishop seemed interested in everything he saw. They left the station and walked the narrow road to what might be called the center of town had Shancarrig been a larger place. They paused at the Church of the Holy Redeemer for His Grace to say a silent prayer at the foot of the altar. Then they walked past the bus stop, the little line of shops, Ryan's Commercial Hotel, and The Terrace where the doctor, the solicitor, and other people of importance lived.
The Bishop seemed to nod approvingly when places looked well, and to frown slightly as he passed the poorer cottages. But perhaps that was all in Father Gunn's mind. Maybe His Grace was unaware of his surroundings and was merely saying his prayers. As they walked along Father Gunn was only too conscious of the smell from the River Grane, low and muddy. As they crossed the bridge he saw out of the corner of his eye a few faces at the window of Johnny Finn Noted for Best Drinks. He prayed they wouldn't find it necessary to open the window.
Mattie the postman sat laconically on an upturned barrel. He was one of the only spectators since almost every other citizen of Shancarrig was waiting at the school.
The Bishop stretched out his hand very slightly as if offering his ring to be kissed.
Mattie inclined his head very slightly and touched his cap. The gesture was not offensive, butneither was it exactly respectful. If the Bishop understood it, he said nothing. He smiled to the right and the left, his thin aristocratic face impervious to the heat. Father Gunn's face was a red round puddle of sweat.
The first sign of the schoolhouse was the huge ancient beech tree, a copper beech that shaded the playground. Then you saw the little stone schoolhouse that had been built at the turn of the century. The dedication ceremony had been carefully written out in advance and scrutinized by these bureaucratic clerics who seemed to swarm around the Bishop. They had checked every word in case Father Gunn might have included a major heresy or sacrilege. The purpose of it all was to consecrate the school, and the future of all the young people it would educate, to God in this Holy Year. Father Gunn failed to understand why this should be considered some kind of doctrinal minefield. All he was trying to do was to involve the community at the right level, to make them see that their children were their hope and their future.
For almost three months the event had been heralded from the altar at Mass. And the pious hope expressed that the whole village would be present for the prayers and the dedication. The prayers, hymns, and short discourse should take forty-five minutes, and then there would be an hour for tea.
As they plodded up the hill Father Gunn saw that everything was in place.
A crowd of almost two hundred people stood around the school yard. Some of the men leaned against the school walls, but the women stood chatting to each other. They were dressed in their Sunday best. The group would part to let the little procession through and then the Bishop would see the children of Shancarrig.
All neat and shining--he had been on a tour of inspection already this morning. There wasn't a hair out of place, a dirty nose or a bare foot to be seen. Even the Brennans and the Dunnes had been made respectable. They stood, all forty-eight of them, outside the school. They were in six rows of eight, those at the back were on benches so that they could be seen. They looked like little angels, Father Gunn thought. It was always a great surprise the difference a little cleaning and polishing could make.
Father Gunn relaxed, they were nearly there. Only a few more moments then the ceremony would begin. It would be all right after all.
The school looked magnificent. Not even Mrs. Kennedy could have complained about its appearance, Father Gunn thought. And the tables were arranged under the huge spreading shade of the copper beech.
The Master and the Mistress had the children beautifully arranged, great emphasis having been laid on looking neat and tidy. Father Gunn began to relax a little. This was as fine a gathering as the Bishop would find anywhere in the diocese.
The ceremony went like clockwork. Monsignor O'Toole's chair was placed just to one side. The singing, if not strictly tuneful, was at least in the right area. No huge discordancies were evident.
It was almost time for tea--the most splendid tea that had ever been served in Shancarrig. All the eatables were kept inside the school building, out of the heat and away from the flies. When the last notes of the last hymn died away Mr. and Mrs. Kelly withdrew indoors.
There was something about the set line of Mrs. Kennedy's face that made Father Gunn decide to go and help them. He couldn't bear it if a tray of sandwiches fell to the ground or the cream slid from the top of a trifle. Quietly he moved in, to find a scene of total confusion. Mr. and Mrs. Kelly and young Madeleine Ross stood frozen in a tableau, their faces expressing different degrees of horror.
"What is it?" he asked, barely able to speak.
"Every single queen cake!" Mrs. Kelly held up what looked from the top a perfectly acceptable tea cake with white icing on it, but underneath the sign of tooth marks showed that the innards had been eaten away.
"And the chocolate cake!" gasped Madeleine Ross, who was white as a sheet. The front of the big cake as you saw it looked delectable, but the back had been propped up with a piece of bark, a good third of the cake having been eaten away.
"It's the same with the apple tarts!" Mrs. Kelly's tears were now openly flowing down her cheeks. "Some of the children I suppose."
"That Foxy Dunne and his gang, I should have known. I should have bloody known." Jim Kelly's face was working itself into a terrible anger.
"How did he get in?"
"The little bastard said he'd help with the chairs, brought a whole gang in with him. I said to him "all those cakes are counted very carefully.' And I did bloody count them when they went out."
"Stop saying bloody and bastard to Father Gunn," said Nora Kelly.
"I think it's called for." Father Gunn was grim.
"If only they could have just eaten half a dozen. They've wrecked the whole thing."
"Maybe I shouldn't have gone on about counting them." Jim Kelly's big face was full of regret.
"It's all ruined," Madeleine Ross said. "It's ruined." Her voice held the high tinge of hysteria that Father Gunn needed to bring him to his senses.
"Of course it's not ruined, Madeleine. Get the teapots out, call Mrs. Kennedy to help you. She's wonderful at pouring tea and she'd like to be invited. Get Conor Ryan from the hotel to start pouring the lemonade and send Dr. Jims in here to me quick as lightning."
His words were so firm that Madeleine was out the door in a flash. Through the small window he saw the tea-pouring begin and Conor Ryan happy to be doing something he was familiar with, pouring the lemonade.
The doctor arrived, worried in case someone had been taken ill.
"It's your surgical skills we need, Doctor. You take one knife I'll take another and we'll cut up all these cakes and put out a small selection."
"In the name of God, Father Gunn, what do you want to do that for?" asked the doctor.
"Because these lighting devils that go by the wrong name of innocent children have torn most of the cakes apart with their teeth," said Father Gunn.
Triumphantly they arrived out with the plates full of cake selections.
"Plenty more where that came from!" Father Gunn beamed as he pressed the assortments into their hands. Since most people might not have felt bold enough to choose such a wide selection they were pleased rather than distressed to see so much coming their way.
Out of the corner of his mouth Father Gunn kept asking Mr. Kelly, the Master, for the names of those likely to have been involved. He kept repeating them to himself, as someone might repeat the names of tribal leaders who had brought havoc and destruction on his ancestors. Smiling as he served people and bustled to and fro, he repeated an incantation--"Leo Murphy, Eddie Barton, Niall Hayes, Maura Brennan, Nessa Ryan, and Foxy Bloody Dunne."
He saw that Mattie the postman had consented to join the gathering, and was dangerously near the Bishop.
"Willing to eat the food of the Opium of the People, I see," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
"That's a bit harsh from you, Father," Mattie said, halfway through a plate of cake.
"Speak to the Bishop on any subject whatsoever and you'll never deliver a letter in this parish again," Father Gunn warned.
The gathering was nearing its end. Soon it would be time to return to the station.
This time the journey would be made by car. Dr. Jims and Mr. Hayes, the solicitor, would drive the Bishop and the two clerics, whose names had never been ascertained.
Father Gunn assembled the criminals together in the school. "Correct me if I have made an error in identifying any of the most evil people it has ever been my misfortune to meet," he said in a terrible tone.
Their faces told him that his information had been mainly correct.
"Well?" he thundered.
"Niall wasn't in on it," Leo Murphy said. She was a small, wiry ten-year-old with red hair. She came from The Glen, the big house on the hill. She could have had cake for tea seven days a week.
"I did have a bit, though," Niall Hayes said.
"Mr. Kelly is a man with large hands. He has declared his intention of using them to break your necks, one after the other. I told him that I would check with the Vatican, but I was sure he would get absolution. Maybe even a medal." Father Gunn roared the last word. They all jumped back in fright. "However, I told Mr. Kelly not to waste the Holy Father's time with all these dispensations and pardons, instead I would handle it. I told him that you had all volunteered to wash every dish and plate and cup and glass. That it was your contribution. That you would pick up every single piece of litter that has fallen around the school. That you would come to report to Mr. and Mrs. Kelly when it is all completed."
They looked at each other in dismay. This was a long job. This was something that the ladies of the parish might have been expected to do.
"What about people like Mrs. Kennedy? Wouldn't they want to . . . ? Foxy began.
"No, they wouldn't want to, and people like Mrs. Kennedy are delighted to know that you volunteered to do this. Because those kinds of people haven't seen into your black souls."
There was a silence.
"This day will never be forgotten. I want you to know that. When other bad deeds are hard to remember this one will always be to the forefront of the mind. This June day in 1950 will be etched there forever." He could see that Eddie Barton's and Maura Brennan's faces were beginning to pucker, he mustn't frighten them to death. "So now. You will join the guard of honor to say farewell to the Bishop, to wave goodbye with your hypocritical hearts to His Grace whose visit you did your best to undermine and destroy. OUT." He glared at them. "OUT this minute."
Outside, the Bishop's party was about to depart. Gracefully he was moving from person to person, thanking them, praising them, admiring the lovely rural part of Ireland they lived in, saying that it did the heart good to get out to see God's beautiful nature from time to time rather than being always in a Bishop's Palace in a city.
"What a wonderful tree this is, and what great shade it gave us today." He looked up at the copper beech as if to thank it, although it was obvious that he was the kind of man who could stand for hours in the Sahara Desert without noticing anything amiss in the climate. It was the boiling Father Gunn who owed thanks to the leafy shade.
"And what's all this writing on the trunk?" He peered at it, his face alive with its well-bred interest and curiosity. Father Gunn heard the Kellys' intake of breath. This was the tree where the children always inscribed their initials, complete with hearts and messages saying who was loved by whom. Too secular, too racy, too sexual to be admired by a Bishop. Possibly even a hint of vandalism about it.
The Bishop seemed by some miracle to be admiring it.
"It's good to see the children mark their being here and leaving here," he said to the group who stood around straining for his last words. "Like this tree has been here for decades, maybe even centuries back, so will there always be a school in Shancarrig to open the minds of its children and to send them out into the world."
He looked back lingeringly at the little stone schoolhouse and the huge tree as the car swept him down the hill and toward the station.
As Father Gunn got into the second car to follow him and make the final farewells at the station, he turned to look once more at the criminals. Because his heart was big and the day hadn't been ruined he gave them half a smile. They didn't dare to believe it.
Meet the Author
Maeve Binchy was born and educated in Dublin. She is the bestselling author of The Return Journey, Evening Class, This Year It Will Be Different, and The Glass Lakes. She has written two plays and a teleplay that won three awards at the Prague Film Festival. She has been writing for The Irish Times since 1969 and lives with her husband, writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell, in Dublin.
- Dublin, Ireland, and London, England
- Date of Birth:
- May 28, 1940
- Place of Birth:
- Dalkey, a small village outside Dublin, Ireland
- Holy Child Convent in Killiney; B.A. in history, University College, Dublin, 1960
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