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The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantelpiece of whatever bedsitting room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bedsprings, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.
After she had arranged the photograph so that her dear aunt could look at her from the exact centre of the mantelpiece, Miss Hearne unwrapped the white tissue paper which covered the coloured oleograph of the Sacred Heart. His place was at the head of the bed, His fingers raised in benediction, His eyes kindly yet accusing. He was old and the painted halo around His head was beginning to show little cracks. He had looked down on Miss Hearne for a long time, almost half her lifetime.
The trouble about hanging the Sacred Heart, Miss Hearne discovered, was that there was no picture hook in the right place. She had bought some picture hooks but she had no hammer. So she laid the Sacred Heart down on the bed and went to the bay window to see how the room looked from there.
The street outside was a university bywater, once a good residential area, which had lately been reduced to the level of taking in paying guests. Miss Hearne stared at the houses opposite and thought of her aunt’s day when there were only private families in this street, at least one maid to every house, and dinner was at night, not at noon. All gone now, all those people dead and all the houses partitioned off into flats, the bedrooms cut in two, kitchenettes jammed into linen closets, linoleum on the floors and “To Let” cards in the bay windows. Like this house, she thought. This bed-sitting room must have been the master bedroom. Or even a drawing room. And look at it now. She turned from the window to the photograph on the mantelpiece. All changed, she told it, all changed since your day. And I’m the one who has to put up with it.
But then she shook her head to chase the silly cobwebs from her mind. She walked across the room, inspecting the surface. The carpet wasn’t bad at all, just a bit worn in the middle part, and a chair could be put there. The bed could be moved out an inch from the wall to hide that stain. And there on the bed was the Sacred Heart, lying face down, waiting to be put up in His proper place. Nothing for it, Miss Hearne said to herself, but to go down and ask the new landlady for the loan of a hammer.
Down she went, down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen which was used as a sitting room by Mrs Henry Rice. She knocked on the curtained door and Mrs Henry Rice drew the edge of the curtain aside to peek through the glass before she opened the door. Miss Hearne thought that a little rude, to say the least.
“Yes, Miss Hearne?”
Beyond the open door Miss Hearne saw a good fire in the grate and a set of china tea things on a table.
“I wondered if you had a hammer you might lend me. It’s to put up a picture, you know. I’m terribly sorry to be troubling you like this.”
“No trouble at all,” Mrs Henry Rice said. “But I have a head like a sieve. I never can remember where I put things. I’ll just have to think now. Listen, why don’t you come in and sit down? Maybe you’d like a cup of tea. I just wet some tea this minute.”
Well, that really was a nice gesture to start things off. Very nice indeed. “That’s very kind of you,” Miss Hearne said. “But I hate to put you out like this, really I do. I only wanted to put my picture up, you see.”
But as she said this she advanced across the threshold. It was always interesting to see how other people lived and, goodness knows, a person had to have someone to talk to. Of course, some landladies could be friendly for their own ends. Like Mrs Harper when I was on Cromwell Road and shethought I was going to help her in that tobacconist business. Still Mrs Henry Rice doesn’t look that type. Such a big jolly person, and very nicely spoken.
The room was not in the best of taste, Miss Hearne saw at once. But cosy. Lots of little lace doilies on the tables and lamps with pretty pastel shades. There was a big enamel china dog on the mantelpiece and a set of crossed flags on the wall. Papal flags with silver paper letters underneath that said: eucharistic congress dublin. That was in 1932, in the Phoenix Park, Miss Hearne remembered, and my second cousin, once removed, sang in the choir at High Mass. Nan D’Arcy, God rest her soul, a sudden end, pleurisy, the poor thing. John McCormack was the tenor. A thrilling voice. A Papal count.
“Sit up close to the fire now. It’s perishing cold out,” Mrs Henry Rice said. A Dublin voice, Miss Hearne thought. But not quite. She has a touch of the North in her accent.
Miss Hearne saw that there were two wing chairs pushed close to the fire. She went toward one of them and it turned around and a man was in it.
He was a horrid-looking fellow. Fat as a pig he was, and his face was the colour of cottage cheese. His collar was unbuttoned and his silk tie was spotted with egg stain. His stomach stuck out like a sagging pillow and his little thin legs fell away under it to end in torn felt slippers. He was all bristly blond jowls, tiny puffy hands and long blond curly hair, like some monstrous baby swelled to man size.
“This is Bernard, my only boy,” said Mrs Henry Rice. “This is Miss Hearne, Bernie. Remember, I told you about her coming to stay with us?”
He stared at Miss Hearne with bloodshot eyes, rejecting her as all males had before him. Then he smiled, showing dirty yellow teeth.
“Come and sit by the fire, Miss Hearne,” he said. “Take the other chair. Mama won’t mind.”
Rejected, Miss Hearne sat down, fiddled with her garnet rings, moved her thin legs together and peered for comfort at her long, pointed shoes with the little buttons on them, winking up at her like wise little friendly eyes. Little shoe eyes, always there.
“Sugar and cream?” Mrs Henry Rice asked, bending over the tea things.
“Two lumps, please. And just a soupçon of cream,” Miss Hearne said, smiling her thanks.
“Cup of tea, Bernie?”
“No, thanks, Mama,” the fat man said. His voice was soft and compelling and it shocked Miss Hearne that this ugly pudding should possess it. It reminded her of the time she had seen Beniamino Gigli, the Italian tenor. A fat, perspiring man with a horrid face, wiping the perspiration away with a white handkerchief. And then, when he opened his mouth, you forgot everything and he became a wonderful angel, thrilling everyone in the theatre, from the front stalls to the gods. When Bernard spoke, you wanted to listen.
“Just a little cup, dear?”
“Miss Hearne.” Mrs Henry Rice handed a teacup with the little silver teaspoon clattering in the saucer. Miss Hearne steadied the spoon and smiled her thanks.
“And have you lived long in Belfast, did you say?” Mrs Henry Rice said, poking the fire into a good blaze.
“Oh, since I was a child, yes,” Miss Hearne said. “You see, my aunt lived here, although my parents lived in Ballymena.”
“I see,” said Mrs Henry Rice, who did not see. “And whereabouts did your aunt live? Was it on this side of the city?”
“Oh, yes,” Miss Hearne said. “It was on the Lisburn Road. You see, my parents died when I was very young and my dear aunt, rest her soul, took me to live with her in Belfast.”
“Well, we all have to move around,” Mrs Henry Rice said. “I was born and raised myself in Donegal, in a little place called Creeslough. And then, when I was only a bit of a girl, I was packed off to Dublin to attend a secretarial college. And lived there with an uncle of mine. And met my late husband there. And then, Mr Rice, that’s my late husband, he was posted from Dublin to Belfast. And here I am. It just goes to show you, we all have to run from pillar to post, and you never know where you’ll end up.”
“Indeed,” Miss Hearne said. “But it must have been interesting for you, living in Dublin for so many years.”
“Oh, Dublin’s a grand city, no doubt about it. I’ve never been what you might call fond of Belfast. Of course, it’s not the same for you. You’d have lots of friends here. Is your poor aunt dead long?”
“A few years ago,” Miss Hearne said guardedly.
“And do you have relatives here?” Mrs Henry Rice asked, offering a plate of Jacob’s cream puff biscuits.
“Not close relatives,” Miss Hearne said, fencing her way over familiar ground. They were all a bit nosey, landladies, it was to be expected, of course. They had to know what class of people they were getting, and a good thing too. You couldn’t blame them.
“My aunt came from a very old Belfast family,” she said. “They’ve nearly all died out now, but they have a very interesting history, my aunt’s people. For instance, they’re all buried out in Nun’s Bush. That’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the country. Full up now. It’s closed, you know.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” Mrs Henry Rice said, uninterested. “Have a bikky, Bernie?”
“No thanks, Mama.”
He yawned, patting the opened circle of his mouth with a puffy hand. Above the yawn his eyes, unblinking, watched Miss Hearne, bringing the hot blood to her face.
“I do believe I’ll just throw off this cardigan, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll hold your cup,” Mrs Henry Rice offered amiably. “This room does get a little hot with a good fire going. But Bernie feels the cold a lot, always has.”
Who does he think he is, no manners, staring like that. Give him a stiff look myself. But no, no, he’s still looking. Upsetting. Turn to something else. That book, beside him, upside down, it’s esrev, verse, yes, English Century Seventeenth. Reading it, yes, he has a bookmark in it.
“I see you’re interested in poetry, Mr Rice.”
“Oh, Bernie’s a poet. And always studying. He’s at the university.”
“I am not at the university, Mama,” the fat man said. “I haven’t been at Queen’s for five years.”
“Bernie’s a little delicate, Miss Hearne. He had to stop his studies a while back. Anyway, I think the boys work too hard up there at Queen’s. I always say it’s better to take your time. A young fellow like Bernie has lots of time, no need to rush through life. Take your time and you’ll live longer.”
That fatty must be thirty, if he’s a day, Miss Hearne told herself. Something about him. Not a toper, but something. Oh, the cross some mothers have to bear.
And the cross brought back the Sacred Heart, lying on the bed in the room upstairs, waiting for a hammer to nail Him up. Still, it was nice to sit here in front of a good warm fire with a cup of tea in your hand. And besides, Mrs Henry Rice and this horrid fatty would make an interesting tale to tell when she saw the O’Neills.
For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodation and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected and gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation. And that was why even a queer fellow like this Bernard Rice was a blessing in his own way. He was so funny and horrible with his “Yes, Mama,” and “No, Mama,” and his long blond baby hair. He’d make a tale for the O’Neills at Sunday tea.
So Miss Hearne decided to let the Sacred Heart wait. She smiled, instead, at Bernard and asked him what he had been studying at the university.
“Arts,” he said.
“And were you planning to teach? I mean, when your health . . .”
“I’m not planning anything,” Bernard said quietly. “I’m writing poetry. And I’m living with my mother.” He smiled at Mrs Henry Rice as he said it. Mrs Henry Rice nodded her head fondly.
“Bernard’s not like some boys,” she said. “Always wanting to leave their poor mothers and take up with some woman and get married far too young. No, Bernard likes his home, don’t you, Bernie?”
“Nobody else knows my ways as well as you, Mama,” Bernie said softly. He turned to Miss Hearne. “She’s really an angel, Mama is, especially when I don’t feel well.”
Miss Hearne couldn’t think of anything to say. Something about him, so insincere. And staring at me like that, what’s the matter with me, is my skirt up? No, of course not. She tugged her skirt snug about her calves and resolutely turned the conversation toward a common denominator.
“We’re in Saint Finbar’s here, I believe. That’s Father Quigley’s parish, isn’t it?”
“Yes, he’s the P.P. Isn’t he a caution?”
“Oh, is that so? I heard he was a wonderful man,” Miss Hearne said. Goodness knows, religion is a comfort, even in conversation. If we hadn’t the priests to talk about, where would we be half the time?
“He’s very outspoken, I mean,” Mrs Henry Rice corrected herself. “I’ll tell you a story I heard only last week. And it’s the gospel truth.”
Mrs Henry Rice paused and looked sideways at Bernard. “Last week,” she said, “Father Quigley was offered a new Communion rail for the church from a Mrs Brady that used to keep a bad house. And do you know what he told her?”
“What Mrs Brady would that be?” Miss Hearne said faintly, unsure that she had heard it right. A “bad house” did she say? It certainly sounded like it. Well, that sort of place shouldn’t be mentioned, let alone mentioned in connection with the Church. You read about them in books, wicked houses, and who would think there were such places, right here in Belfast. She leaned forward, her black eyes nervous, her face open and eager.
“Well, as I said, she’s the one that ran a bad house for men over on the Old Lodge Road,” Mrs Rice said. “A terrible sort of woman. So, like all those bad women, she began to get afraid when she knew her time was coming near, and she decided to go to confession and mend her ways. The house was closed up last year and she’s been a daily communicant ever since. So, a couple of weeks ago – I heard it from one of the ladies in the altar society – she went to see Father Quigley and said she wanted to present a new Communion rail to Saint Finbar’s. Wrought iron from Spain, all the finest work.”
Mrs Henry Rice paused to watch Miss Hearne’s reaction.
“Well, I never!” Miss Hearne said.
“And do you know what Father Quigley said to her? He just drew himself up, such a big powerful stern man, you know what he looks like, and he said, ‘Look here, my good woman, let me ask you straight out, where did you get the money?’”
“Good heavens,” Miss Hearne said, thrilling to every word. “And what did she say to that, the creature?”
“Well, that took her back, no denying. She just fretted and fussed and finally she said she made the money in her former business. Her business, if you please. So Father Quigley just looked down at her, with that stiff look of his, and said to her, he said: ‘Woman,’ he said, ‘do you think I’ll have the good people of this parish kneeling down on their bended knees to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ with their elbows on the wages of sin and corruption?’ That’s the very thing he said.”
“And right too,” Miss Hearne commented. “That was putting her in her place. I should think so, indeed.”
Bernard pulled the poker out of the coals and lit a cigarette against its reddened end. “Poor Mama,” he said. “You always mix a story up. No, no, that wasn’t the way of it at all. You’ve forgotten what Mrs Brady said, right back to him.”
Mrs Henry Rice gave him a reproachful glance. “Never mind, Bernie. I did not forget. But I wouldn’t lower myself to repeat the insolence of a one like that Mrs Brady.”
“But that’s the whole point,” Bernard said, pushing the poker back among the coals. “Wait till I tell you her answer.” And he leaned forward toward Miss Hearne, his white, fat face split in a smile of anti-clerical malice. His voice changed, mimicking the tones of the bad Mrs Brady.
“She said to him: ‘Father, where do you think the money came from that Mary Magdalene used to anoint the feet of Our Blessed Lord? It didn’t come from selling apples,’ she said. And that’s the real story about Father F. X. Quigley, if you want to know.”
When he said this, Bernard laughed. His cheeks wobbled like white pudding.
“What a shocking disrespect for the priest,” Miss Hearne said. Where did the ointment come from anyway? Sometimes it made you see that you should read your Douay and know it better in order to be able to give the lie to rascals like this fat lump. But for the life of her she couldn’t remember where Mary Magdalene had got the money. What matter, it was an out-and-out sin to quote Scripture to affront the priest. She put her teacup down.
“The devil can quote Scripture to suit his purpose,” she said.
“Just so,” Mrs Henry Rice agreed. “But what else could you expect from the likes of Mrs Brady? No decent woman would talk to her.”
“Well – when I think of it – that hussy!” Miss Hearne said. “It’s downright blasphemy, that’s what it is, saying a thing like that in connection with Our Blessed Lord. Oh, my goodness, that reminds me. My picture. It’s of the Sacred Heart and I always hang it up as soon as I get in a new place. I mustn’t be keeping you. The hammer.”
“The hammer. I forgot all about it,” Mrs Henry Rice said. “Now, let me think. Oh, I know.”
She stood up, opened the door and yelled into the hall.
A voice called back. “Ye-ess!”
“Get the hammer out of the top drawer in the dresser in the attic,” Mrs Henry Rice bawled. She closed the door and turned back to Miss Hearne.
“Another cup of tea before you go?”
“Oh, no, really, it’s been lovely. Just perfect, thank you very much.”
“She’s a new girl, you know,” Mrs Henry Rice said, nodding toward the door. “I got her from the nuns at the convent. A good strong country girl. But they need a lot of breaking in, if you know what I mean.”
Miss Hearne, completely at home with this particular conversation, having heard it in all its combinations from her dear aunt and from her friends, said that if you got a good one it was all right, but sometimes you had a lot of trouble with them.
“You have to be after them all the time,” Mrs Henry Rice said, moving into the familiar groove of such talk. “You know, it’s a wonder the nuns don’t do more with them before they send them out to take a place. Badly trained, or not trained at all, is about the height of it.”
“Even when these girls are trained, they’re not used to the city,” Miss Hearne said. “I know the trouble friends of mine have had with convent-trained girls, taking up with soldiers and other riff-raff. Indeed, I often think the nuns are too strict. The girls behave like children as soon as . . .”
But she did not finish because at that moment there was a knock on the door and Mary came in. She was a tall, healthy girl with black Irish hair, blue eyes, and firm breasts pushing against the white apron of her maid’s uniform. Miss Hearne looked at her and thought she would do very nicely indeed. If you were civil to these girls, they often did little odd jobs that needed doing.
So she smiled at Mary and was introduced by Mrs Henry Rice. The hammer was given into her hands and she fumbled with it, saying thank you, and that she would return it as soon as she had finished hanging her picture. Mrs Henry Rice said there was no hurry and to let them know if she needed anything else, and then Miss Hearne went back up the two flights of stairs to her room.
She found a picture hook and began to nail the Sacred Heart over the head of the bed. And then, thinking back on the people downstairs, it occurred to her that while Bernard Rice was interesting in a horrible sort of way, he was also creepy-crawly and the sort of person a woman would have to look out for. He looked nosey and she felt sure he was the sort of slyboots who would love prying into other people’s affairs. And saying the worst thing he could about what he found. Instinctively, she looked at her trunks and saw that they were locked. Just keep them that way, she told herself. I wouldn’t put it past him to creep in here some day when I’m out. Still, his mother is certainly friendly, if a little soft where her darling boy is concerned. And the fire and the tea were nice and warming.
She stood back and surveyed the Sacred Heart. Prayers, she must say later. Meanwhile, she drew the curtains and lit the gas stove. With the electric light on and the gas stove spluttering, warming the white bones of its mantles into rosy red, the new bed-sitting room became much more cheerful. Miss Hearne felt quite satisfied after her cup of tea and biscuit, so, after unpacking some more of her things, she laid her flannel nightgown on the bed and turned the covers down. It had all gone very well really, and the cab driver had looked quite happy with the shilling she gave him for carrying the trunks upstairs. It should have been more, but he hadn’t said anything nasty. And that was the main thing. She was moved in, she had chatted with the landlady and, as a bonus, she had a couple of interesting stories to tell. The one about Father Quigley was not for mixed company, but it was certainly interesting. She decided to discard Bernard’s ending. It just wasn’t suitable and spoiled the whole point. And then there was Mrs Henry Rice and Bernard himself. They’d be something to talk about. Maybe some of the young O’Neills knew Bernard if he had been at Queen’s.
Miss Hearne unpacked the little travelling clock which had come all the way from Paris as a gift to her dear aunt. It was only seven, too early to go to bed. But she was tired and tomorrow was Friday, with nothing to do but unpack. Besides, if she went to sleep soon, she wouldn’t need any supper.
She put the clock on the bed table and switched on the little bed lamp. Then she undressed, and knelt to say her prayers. Afterward, she lay between the covers in the strange bed, watching the shadows of the new room. When the reddened mantles of the stove had cooled to whiteness and the chill of the night made goose-pimples on her forearms outside the covers, she looked over at her dear aunt and then turned her head to look up at the Sacred Heart. She said good night to them both, then switched off the bed light and lay, snuggled in, with only her nose and eyes out of the covers, remembering that both of them were there in the darkness. They make all the difference, Miss Hearne thought, no matter what aunt was like at the end. When they’re with me, watching over me, a new place becomes home.