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The Gift of Women
By George McWhirter
Exile EditionsCopyright © 2014 George McWhirter
All rights reserved.
Re: Deilf as observed St. Colum Cille in a stream swollen by rains in the vicinity of Bangor and its recently established abbey, subsequently recorded in this elaboration.
River dolphin return to their small streams when they rise in great rains. Sometime these returns take decades or centuries, to come, but as we know, though it never changes, the dolphin appearance is always in keeping with those times in which they reappear.
— From the Irish. Anonymous, Iona, AD 599
Meta had four or five misdemeanours against her. Dalliance with U.S. soldiers was growled about, daily, but unpunishable – unless Meta could be got up for running a bawdy bungalow. When they discovered she had sloped in with a foreigner, not by way of her front door, but the river around the back, they thought they had her for espionage and harbouring an alien.
Still, they didn't actually see her smuggle him in or hold out her hand to help him up the stone steps she had put in to kneel on and do her washing in the river. They'd have taken the fella for a visiting dignitary, a dark prince, arriving by water to take her to the Town Ball in Bangor or the Plaza in Belfast, where girls danced their legs off with anything in bellbottoms, air force blue or khaki.
Dressed in his blue-black sweater, thick worsted trousers and wool toque, they might also have spotted him as one of those Italian frogmen, who had dumped his wet-suit and goggles somewhere so that he might land and blend in. The toque, which he never took off, appeared to cover a bald head or hair so close cropped it shone as bluely as the wool toque on top. The sideburns, razored so each jutted down his jaws like a jackboot, had cinched his nationality for Meta.
He was an I-tie.
Meta's was a mecca for anything beginning with "i": anything in solent, ill egal, irr egular or in decent. How illegal, improper or improvident was chalked up on lavatory walls, milestones, under railway arches and the slate in Redman's shop, where Meta owed a small fortune.
"She'd slide into bed with any pair of odd balls – it's second nature to her," said Mrs. McLarnen as Mrs. Redmond cut and paddled a square of butter for her, then stamped her ration book.
"More's the pity she isn't in it for the money. It'd wipe her slate clean with me."
So, their getting wind of the crime after the fact, when the enemy alien had done a bunk, made the story one more Meta myth the village of Carnalea chalked up to her second nature.
At Whin Hill Meta stands to shower her head. The stream divides in two around it before joining again to flow over a tiny delta of stones to the sea. The wind beats her skirt against her thighs. A storm has been and gone in the night, and on the morning tide the American aircraft carrier weighed anchor and went with it. Meta is watching the carrier clear the horizon. The sky goes bluer and the sea, too – not summer blue, but cold-as-a-mackerel winter blue, whose contagious colour everything on land and water catches, everything, except the yellow whin. This is why she doesn't see y'r man, dressed in navy blues. He gleams, either because he is soaking wet, or his woollens are saturated in lanolin or woven from short fine hairs sleek as seal skin. One moment, the only sound is shallow water running across the stones below, then their tops clack and grate as his feet slither over them in a pair of deep blue swimming pool slippers.
Cox, the retired Major in the big-windowed house above, uses them to walk down his path and wade in here. The Major also uses his binoculars to watch the coast for things washing in. Will he see this bit of jetsam who's waded ashore under his own steam? Vapour rises from his mouth and slowly off the toque at the top of his head. Where's he from – the carrier? An American deserter? Or one of those poor souls from the submarines, deserting Italy now that it's losing, like slaves off a sinking galley?
Meta calls to him, but the gurgled answer could be the river's or something like Italian. She picks her way down, takes off her shoes to stand beside him in her bare feet. He looks down at them on the cold stone. "Feet," "sweet," "cheep?" She can't catch it, but will have to take him up to her house by the river, to hear what he has to say and see what she can do. "Italian," she asks, "Ital-iano?" She has him under the arm. "Were you after the American carrier?"
"Deilf," he says. She wrinkles her nose. He wrinkles his nose back at her and touches the top of his toque to scratch the wool there. "Brass Eel," he says next, and studies her face to see if this registers.
"Pull the other leg, Basil," she tells him, but he shivers and she feels sorry for him. She puts her hand on his toque. "Did you fall off? Get left behind?" she asks when his eyes roll up to where her hand is laid on his toque. "You were after the American carrier. I was after the carrier myself. Ended up, same as you, just watching it bugger off."
She points up the river. When she stops pulling him by the arm and pushes ahead of him, he matches her step. The thin, shaggy shanks of the hawthorns intrigue him as much as her heels. He stares up and touches the crimson haws.
"It must be dark in the water. Specially at night?" says Meta. "Bet you're glad you're here in Carnalea."
"Not Carn-allee, Car-na-lea." She looks into his eyes. "Are you a singer?" They approach the tunnel that goes under the railway line. "A tenor, a Benjamino Gigli? Lovely'n' all as your voice is, no arias in here. We don't want a living soul to know you're here." She puts her finger to her lips, then points the same finger at the tunnel. The trickle and ripple in the tunnel must amuse him, he chirps and chatters along with it.
At the tunnel's other end, he stops before the opening to the light. Plants that have overgrown the railway station railing dangle into it. Honeysuckle and fuchsia that remind Meta of female private parts and sea things: anemone. He stops her under them with the grip of his hand. She feels the fingers, fine, hard as knitting needles. "Never fear. My bungalow's a couple of houses up. Other side of this tunnel. I'll have you in, out of sight."
Why should she want him in? If he has no ration book, emergency grubstake – she will have to share hers. No tinkle of change in his pocket either. Perhaps the money's sewn into the lining of his trousers, all in notes. "You made off with some treasure? Off those boats the Nazis use to transport loot from everywhere they invaded?"
Meta sighs. She would steal all she could, off them nasties – every brass tack. She hopes his pockets have little velvet pouches tied up with string. She's seen pirates in the pictures empty them onto tavern tables. "Diamonds?" she asks.
"Dye-a-monds," he replies and Meta beams. He undulates in a Carmen Miranda samba. And as they say in the movies, she can't keep her eyes off his rhythm section. "You know Harry James, Betty Grable?" But before he can answer, she says, "Both of us better samba inside."
He looks at the whitewashed stones bordering the back garden path. They wiggle toward the river and the steps she uses to do her washing. The neighbours will be watching the front for her, as usual. They peer over their hedges to see her head pass by with the different types of military headgear. They guess what service, what rank by the cap beside Meta's turban. Out of pride, Meta never brings anyone in by the back door, but Basil is special. On her back doorstep, he pauses to put his nose high into the air.
Sniffing the state of her bungalow, is he?
"Any Ardglass herrin'!" comes the Wednesday call from the fish cart. The neighbour women won't have seen a thing. They're on the road, or at their gates, plates ready for the herring. No dirty newspaper parcels for them, straight to the plate and into the pan.
Meta watches Basil twitch his nose and ears. Maybe he thinks the Ardglass herrin'-howl is a siren. The fishmonger's son prolongs it, like he's offering the Carnalea women the love of their lives. "Anyyyyyaaaaah Aaaardglaaaaas heeeeruuuuuun?" He makes one stop for each stretch of road between the bends in it. He collects the women's plates, like a clergyman his alms takers' at the altar on a Sunday. Meta always elbows and upsets the others' plates so badly, they give her leeway.
"It's only the herrin' man."
This information catches Basil twisting from side to side.
"Kar-na-lee, dye-a-mond, ear-ring man," he says.
"Not an ear-ring man, it's th' Ardglass 'errin' man. I didn't forget it's Wednesday. I have the money to get some." She nods at the back door. "I'll get a plate and buy a dozen – a dozen and a half. That'll do us a day or two."
The herring only last one meal and the last is gone before the first has hit the pan.
"You're that starvin', you ate them raw? Sweet Jesus – an extra mouth to feed that swallows herring like I do Aspirin!"
Meta's ambition for the title, "Kept Woman," is gone. She has ended up with a hungry man on her hands again.
"Is Basil your real name?" she asks him after their meal together on that Wednesday.
"Deilf," he tells her.
"That's only initials for something, your second name. Is Basil the first, the Christian name?"
"Boto," says he.
"Boat – Oh!" she says back to him. He nods and still hasn't taken off his toque, nor sweater for that matter.
"Deilf, del-feen ..."
"Del. Lots of yanks are called Del. I'm not sure what it's short for. Delanore, like Roosevelt? Feen, now ... Feeney? Did you run away there from Mussolini, like our ice-cream men, the Capronis, in Bangor?" She claps her hand over his mouth when he begins to flute and whistle. She puts her mouth where her hand was and Basil Del Feeney swings her and dances with her on his mouth. He sets her on her feet, sways her, then has her rolling to his muted whistles and flutes in one ear after the other. Side to side, on her back, on her belly, rocking like a boat to move it forward with nary a sail nor an oar, just a barge pole, Meta laughs. The energy he puts into her!
What do the old biddies say over the tops of their hedges to her buying the last box of herring off the fishmonger on his way back up the road – "Feeding the fleet with those, are ye, Meta?"
When she wakes at 0300 hours, she sees he is gone. Air force men are forever taking off at 0300 to get to Limavady before it's 0600. As far as they're concerned, Northern Ireland is just one big aircraft carrier. When she gets up, goes out, walks up her front steps and is standing on the road, there are no plates, no herring cart –Wednesday is gone like a very fishy dream and what did she do with the box of herring she spent her rainy day dough on?
She sticks out her tongue at the emptiness of Station Road.
Back down the concrete steps she goes to the house, through the house to the back door, opens it and Basil steps in.
"So, you're 'stablishin' a base of operations, are you?"
Before she gets any louder, he puts his mouth on hers to stop her. Meta feels terrible, lying beside him naked, a moment after that. He gleams with something, too – sweat, or grease. What you'd expect from the I-ties and their olive oil. Should she go on about her aiding and abetting, give him a towel, or a pot scrub?
Basil Del Feeney does have the blue jaw of a Mussolini and the regular run of bad men in the pictures. Has Basil-me-boy planted limpet mines, reconnoitered and reported on the building of the latest carrier on the slips at Harland & Wolff 's shipyard?
The hull for those hulks gets launched first and the rest, put together on the water like an iron aerodrome. Like a city – with more people in them than Bangor. Which reminds her! She'll need to go see the Ardglass herring man, but in his Bangor shop.
Except ... Meta's back door smells like a fishmonger's already, and pushing the door wide to take a geek, she shoves it into a pack of dead mackerel, lying with the gubs wide open on her teeny back porch. She swears, come the next night, she'll stay awake, but in due course, after he comes and comes, her eyelids buckle, she blinks, wakes and the night and himself are gone again.
Time for a nip of the moonshine, the night life in the morning.
She has this bottle of poteen the policeman, Hagen, left her – that time he had her up in court for keeping a dog without a licence. Poor Rex, who ran away from her in the end and got run over, but brought policeman Hagen with the news and the poteen to sympathize.
She needed a pet, Hagen said. Tucked in together, sipping poteen, the sergeant declared, "I'm your pet policeman." Now, it's Basil Del Feeney, who shows up next morning with a mother-of-pearl shell big as a dinner plate. Two lobsters snap and squirm on it: green, beady-eyed – colour of ocean jade, clicking like typists or flamenco dancers.
Meta is not without skill or education. She has short-hand, went to Pitman's, but without fail, in her secretarial career, some dirty git of a manager would want her to use her longhand on him and promise her all sorts of things for the job. As she slow boils the lobsters to a coma and empties the shell of meat, he watches her closely. What's he puzzled about? The knack Meta has in her fingers that he can put to use setting timers, attaching wires to detonators? Suddenly, the red lobsters gape like gutted cities at Meta, like Belfast in the Blitz, shattered – these blazing red shells. And feeling instantly guilty, she throws the shells and plundered contents in his face, which just as instantly makes her sorry for his burning hunger for seafood and fucking.
As bad as beating Rex, the dog, with its ham bone for dinner.
But Basil believes Meta's celebrating and tosses the shredded meat over her head like shellfish confetti. From feeling dubious, to devastated, to damn well delighted, Meta decides this is as mad as a marriage for her, at last.
Basil's mating rhythm with her works in sets of seven, regular as waves, and the fizz in her blood is as strong as when her bare skin met the Atlantic on a summer jaunt to the beach at Buncrana. Like dunking her bum in champagne – such sizzle between her skin and the sea, she stayed flushed for hours afterwards, singing all the way back through Counties Derry and Antrim to Down. And as Major Cox of the big-windowed house on the shore put it: "set her effervescent ass on the lap of all and sundry in the charabanc."
In bed after dinner, she picks slivers of shell from Basil's toque. If she lifts the toque a smidgen, his eyes open and he coos like a sea pigeon. Otherwise he sleeps soundly, but always with the toque on. Like the cloth cap working men wear at all hours – to sleep and to work in. Meta might have expected different, but loves Basil Del Feeney none the less. Still, she needs something more to show for it. A girl can only stare so long at mother-of-pearl, mackerel, sole and giant frigging halibut he hauls to her back door. She pours verdigris over the back step to kill the stink.
But still no proposal, no statement of intent!
Then, would she understand one if he gave it to her, verbally or written in his titillating jibber of Italian or whatever it is? Since none seems to be in the offing, Meta will make a bond of blood, a blood bond as she rummages in a kitchen drawer for the filleting knife she'll sharpen with spit on a cake of carborundum. He won't feel a thing.
In the bedroom, it is 0100 hours.
He's at it again, after the old bum and belly samba, whistling off like a tugboat, chugging into that little sleep that seduces her into the same. Tonight, however, Meta cuts a stroke on his bare upper arm, then one on hers. At the same time, she lies down beside him to make a seal with their blood, shoulder to shoulder, like Siamese twins.
And what does Basil Del Feeney do?
He wakens. He sees the dried blood. He chirps, he chitters and he weeps.
"Jesus, the Axis Powers sent a cry-baby like you to frog-man for them!"
But she can tell he thinks it's her marking him as hers. And, how would she feel if some lover notched her up to his conquests in her sleep? But that's not the way of it. She's cutting him into her life long-time, not short-time – blood bonding them together. Look, she's cut her arm the same, close to the shoulder, and pressed it to his, Siamese twinning a tiny wee bit of what flows from both their hearts and minds inside them, but that's not how he takes it.
He looks at his shoulder and at hers, like she's not cut him in, but cut him out, off from something he's staring wide-eyed at in the dark – his eyes like two big jellyfish. The noise of him gives her a head-buster of a headache. It's no human sound. Never mind the Hoeys and the Carscaddens next door hearing it – out at sea, they'll pick it up on that newfangled detector for submarine noise. And Meta's slap dab in the middle of the bed with it.
She has to get up and get herself a headache powder.
Excerpted from The Gift of Women by George McWhirter. Copyright © 2014 George McWhirter. Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
SITTINGS FOR A PHOTOGRAPH IN A GREEN ROOM,
THE DARK BARBER,
LONELY RIVERS FLOW TO THE SEA, TO THE SEA, TO THE,
OPEN ARMS OF THE SEA,
SISTERS IN SPADES,
LILY OF THE BELLY,
AN ULSTER GLOSSARY OF UTTERANCES,