Irish Revel by Edna Brien
The Irish are said to be good at parties, noisy revels with drinking, singing, and dancing late into the night. But Mary, seventeen and living on a lonely farm, has no experience of them, and as she cycles down the mountain road to her first party in the town, she is full of hopes and dreams and expectations…
Mary hoped that the ancient front tyre on the bicycle would burst. Twice she had to stop to put more air in it, which was very annoying. For as long as she could remember, she had been putting air in tyres, carrying firewood, cleaning out the cow shed, doing a man’s work. Her father and two brothers worked for the forestry company, so she and her mother had to do everything, and there were three children to take care of as well. Theirs was a mountainy farm in Ireland, and life was hard.
But this cold evening in early November she was free. She rode her bicycle along the road, thinking pleasantly about the party. Although she was seventeen, this was her first party. The invitation had come only that morning from Mrs Rodgers, owner of the Commercial Hotel. At first her mother did not wish Mary to go; there was too much to be done, soup to be made, and one of the children had earache and was likely to cry in the night. But Mary begged her mother to let her go.
‘What use would it be?’ her mother said. To her, all such excitements were bad for you, because they gave you a taste of something you couldn’t have. But finally she agreed.
‘You can go as long as you’re back in time to milk the cows in the morning, and don’t do anything foolish,’ she said. Mary was going to stay the night in town with Mrs Rodgers. She had washed and brushed her hair, which fell in long dark waves over her shoulders. She was allowed to wear the black evening dress that an uncle had sent from America years ago. Her mother said a prayer to keep her safe, took her to the top of the farm road, warned her never to touch alcohol, and said goodbye.
Mary felt happy as she rode along slowly, avoiding the holes in the road, which were covered with thin ice. It had been very cold all day. At the bottom of the hill she got off and looked back, out of habit, at her house. It was the only one on the mountain, small and white, with a piece of land at the back which they called the vegetable garden. She looked away. She was now free to think of John Roland. He had appeared two years before, riding a motorbike daringly fast, and stopped to ask the way. He was staying at the Commercial Hotel and had come up to see the lake, which was famous for the way it changed colour at different times of day. When the sun went down, the water was often a strange reddish-purple, like wine.
‘Down there,’ she said to the stranger, pointing to the lake below. Rocky hills and tiny fields of bare earth dropped steeply towards the water. It was midsummer and very hot; the grass was tall and there were wild flowers, blood-red, close to their feet.
‘What an unusual sight,’ he said, looking at the lake.
She had no interest in views herself. She just looked up at the high sky and saw that a bird had stopped in the air above them. It was like a pause in her life, the bird above them, perfectly still. Then her mother came out to see who the stranger was. He introduced himself, very politely, as John Roland, an English painter.
She did not remember exactly how it happened, but after a while he walked into their kitchen with them and sat down to tea.
Two long years had passed since that day, but she had never stopped hoping. Perhaps this evening she would see him. The postman had said someone special in the hotel expected her. It seemed to her that her happiness somehow lit up the greyness of the cold sky, the icy fields going blue in the night, the dark windows of the small houses she passed. Suddenly her parents were rich and cheerful, her little sister had no earache, the kitchen fire did not smoke. Sometimes she smiled at the thought of how she would appear to him – taller and more womanly now, in a dress that could be worn anywhere. She forgot about the ancient tyre, jumped on the bicycle and rode on.
The five street lights were on when she entered the small town. There had been a cattle market that day, and drunken farmers with sticks were still trying to find their own cattle in dark corners of the main street.
As she reached the Commercial Hotel, Mary heard loud conversation inside, and men singing in the bar. She didn’t want to go in through the front door, in case someone saw her and told her father she’d gone into the public bar. So she went to the back door. It was open, but she knocked before entering.
Two girls rushed to the door. One was Doris O’Beirne. She was famous for being the only Doris in the whole town, and for the fact that one of her eyes was blue and the other dark brown.
‘God, I thought it was someone important,’ she said when she saw Mary standing there, blushing, pretty, and with a bottle of cream in her hand. Another girl! There were far too many girls in the town. Girls like Mary with matching eyes and long wavy hair.
‘Come in, or stay out,’ said Eithne Duggan, the second girl, to Mary. It was supposed to be a joke but neither of the town girls liked Mary. They hated shy mountainy people.
Mary came in, carrying the cream, which her mother had sent to Mrs Rodgers as a present. She put it on the table and took off her coat. The girls whispered to each other and giggled when they saw her dress. The kitchen smelt of cattle and fried food.
Mrs Rodgers came in from the bar to speak to her.
‘Mary, I’m glad you came, these two girls are no use at all, always giggling. Now the first thing to do is to move the heavy furniture out of the sitting room upstairs, but not the piano. We’re going to have dancing and everything.’
Quickly Mary realized she was being given work to do, and she blushed with shock and disappointment. She thought of her good black dress and how her mother wouldn’t even let her wear it to church on Sundays. She might tear it or dirty it.
‘And then we have to start cooking the goose,’ Mrs Rodgers said, and went on to explain that the party was for Mr Brogan, the local Customs Officer, who was leaving his job.
‘There’s someone here expecting me,’ Mary said, trembling with the pleasure of being about to hear his name spoken by someone else. She wondered which room was his, and if he was likely to be in at that moment. Already in her imagination she was knocking on his door, and could hear him inside.
‘Expecting you!’ Mrs Rodgers said, looking puzzled for a moment. ‘Oh, that young man from the factory was asking about you – he said he saw you at a dance once. A strange one, he is.’
‘What man?’ Mary said, as she felt the happiness leaking out of her heart.
But Mrs Rodgers heard the men in the bar shouting for her to refill their empty glasses, and she hurried out without replying.
Upstairs Doris and Eithne helped Mary move the heavy furniture out of the sitting room. The two town girls shared jokes with each other, giggled at Mary behind her back, and ordered her around like a servant. She dusted the piano and cleaned the floor. She’d come for a party! She wished she were at home – at least with cattle and chickens it was clean dirt.
Then Eithne and Doris told Mary to get the glasses ready, and they went away to drink a secret bottle of beer in the bathroom.
‘She’s crying like a baby in there,’ Eithne told Doris, giggling.
‘God, she looks an eejit in that dress,’ Doris said.
‘It’s her mother’s,’ Eithne said.
‘What’s she crying about?’ wondered Doris.
‘She thought some boy would be here. Do you remember that boy who stayed here the summer before last, with a motorbike?’
‘The boy with the big nose?’ said Doris. ‘God, she’d frighten him in that dress. Her hair isn’t natural, either.’
‘I hate that kind of long black hair,’ Eithne said, drinking the last of the beer. They hid the bottle under the bath.
In the room with the piano Mary got the glasses ready. Tears ran down her face, so she did not put on the light. She saw what the party would be like. They would eat the goose, the men would get drunk and the girls would giggle. They would dance and sing and tell ghost stories, and in the morning she would have to get up early and be home in time for milking. She looked out of the small window at the dirty street, remembering how once she had danced with John on the farm road to no music at all, just their hearts beating, and the sound of happiness.
On that first day at tea, her father had suggested that John should stay with them, and he stayed for four days, helping with the farm work and the farm machinery. Mary made his bed in the morning and carried up a bowl of rainwater every evening, so that he could wash. She washed his shirt, and that day his bare back burnt in the sun. She put milk on it. It was his last day with them. After supper he gave each of the older children a ride on the motorbike. She would never forget that ride. She felt warm from head to foot in wonder and delight. The sun went down, and wild flowers shone yellow in the grass. They did not talk as they rode; she had her arms round his stomach, with the delicate and desperate hold of a girl in love. However far they went, they always seemed to be riding into a golden mist. The lake was at its most beautiful. They stopped at the bridge and sat on a low stone wall. She took an insect off his neck and touched the skin where there was a tiny drop of blood. It was then that they danced, to the sound of singing birds and running water. The air was sweet with the smell of the grass in the fields, lying green and ungathered. They danced.
‘Sweet Mary,’ he said, looking seriously into her brown eyes. ‘I cannot love you because I already have a wife and children to love. Anyway, you are too young and too innocent.’
Next day, as he was leaving, he asked if he could send her something in the post. It came eleven days later – a black-and-white drawing of her, very like her, except that the girl in the drawing was uglier.
‘That’s no good for anything!’ said her mother, who had been expecting a gold bracelet or necklace. They hung it on the kitchen wall for a while and then one day it fell down. Someone (probably her mother) used it, with a brush, for collecting dirt from the floor. Mary had wanted to keep it, to put it safely away in a drawer, but she was ashamed to. Her family were hard people, and it was only when someone died that they ever cried or showed much feeling.
‘Sweet Mary,’ he had said. He never wrote. Two summers passed. She had a feeling that he would come back, and at the same time a terrible fear that he might not.
In the upstairs room of the hotel the men were taking off their jackets and sitting down to eat. The girls had carried the goose up from the kitchen, and it lay in the center of the table. Mrs Rodgers had closed the public bar, and now she was cutting meat off the goose and putting it onto plates. She kept Mary busy, serving the potatoes and passing the food around. Mr Brogan, as chief guest, was served first, with the best cuts of goose.
Mary was surprised that people in towns seemed so coarse. When one of the men, Hickey, tried to take her hand, she did not smile at all. She wished she were at home. She knew what her family were doing there – the boys learning their lessons, her mother baking bread, her father rolling cigarettes and talking to himself. In another hour they’d say their prayers and go up to bed. The routine of their lives never changed. The fresh bread was always cool by morning.
O’Toole, the young man who worked at the factory, had bright green eyes and hair so blond it was almost white.
‘No one’s offered me any food yet,’ he said. ‘A nice way to behave.’
‘Oh God, Mary, haven’t you given Mr O’Toole anything to eat yet?’ Mrs Rodgers said, and she gave Mary a push to hurry her up. Mary gave him a large plateful, and he thanked her, saying they’d dance later. To him she was far prettier than those good-for-nothing town girls – she was tall and thin like himself.
And he liked a simple-minded girl with long hair. Maybe later on he’d persuade her to go into another room, and they’d have sex. She had lovely eyes when you looked into them, brown and deep.
The fifth woman at the party was Crystal, the local hairdresser, who had bright red hair, and who did not like the undercooked goose. She and Mrs Rodgers were talking together when Brogan unexpectedly began to sing.
‘Let the man sing, can’t you,’ O’Toole said to Doris and Eithne, who were giggling over a private joke.
Mary felt cold in her thin dress. There hadn’t been a fire in that room for years, and the air had not warmed up yet.
‘Would any of the ladies care to sing?’ asked O’Toole, when Brogan finished. ‘I’m sure you can sing,’ he said to Mary.
‘Where she comes from, they can only just talk,’ Doris said.
Mary blushed. She said nothing, but she felt angry. Her family ate with a knife and fork, she thought proudly, and had a cloth on the kitchen table, not a plastic one like this, and kept a tin of coffee in the cupboard in case strangers came to the door.
‘Christ, boys, we forgot the soup!’ Mrs Rodgers said suddenly, and hurried out with Doris to fetch it from the kitchen.
After the soup, O’Toole poured out four glasses of whiskey, making sure that the level in each glass was the same. There were bottles of beer as well. The ladies had gin and orange.
‘Orange for me,’ said Mary, but when her back was turned, O’Toole put gin in her orange. They all raised their glasses and drank to Brogan’s future. Long John Salmon, the fourth man at the party, asked Brogan about his plans, and Brogan began to talk about the things he wanted to do to his house and garden.
‘Come on, someone, tell us a joke,’ said Hickey after a while. He was bored with gardening talk.
‘I’ll tell you a joke,’ said Long John Salmon.
‘Is it a funny joke?’ Brogan asked.
‘It’s about my brother Patrick,’ Long John Salmon said.
‘Not that old thing again,’ said Hickey and O’Toole, together.
‘Oh, let him tell it,’ said Mrs Rodgers, who had never heard it.
Long John Salmon told a story about his brother, who died, but came back a month later as a ghost, walking through walls and around the yard.
‘Ah God, let’s have a bit of music,’ said Hickey, who had heard that story nine or ten times. It had neither a beginning, a middle, nor an end.
They put a record on, and O’Toole asked Mary to dance. Brogan and Mrs Rodgers were dancing too, and Crystal said that she’d dance if anyone asked her.
Mary felt strange – her head was going round and round, and in her stomach there was a nice feeling that made her want to lie back and stretch her legs. A new feeling that frightened her. O’Toole danced her right out of the room and into the cold passage beyond, where he kissed her clumsily.
Inside the room, Crystal had begun to cry, sitting at the table with her head on her arms. Gin and orange always made her cry. ‘Hickey, there is no happiness in life,’ she cried bitterly.
‘What happiness?’ said Hickey, who was full of drink.
Doris and Eithne sat on either side of Long John Salmon, talking sweetly to him. He was a strange man, but he owned a large fruit farm and he was still single. Brogan, breathless from dancing, was now sitting down, with Mrs Rodgers sitting on his knees. The record finished, and Mary ran in from the dark passage, away from O’Toole, who followed her in, laughing.
O’Toole was the first to cause trouble. He became offended when Mrs Rodgers prevented him from telling a rude joke.
‘Think of the girls,’ Mrs Rodgers said.
‘Girls!’ O’Toole said nastily. He picked up the bottle of cream and poured it over the few remaining bits of goose.
‘Christ, man!’ Hickey said, taking the bottle of cream away.
Mrs Rodgers said it was time everyone went to bed, as the party seemed to be over. All the guests were staying the night at the hotel. The four girls were going to share one room.
In the bedroom, Mary sighed. Before they could go to bed, they had to move the heavy furniture back to the sitting room. She could hear O’Toole shouting and singing in another room. There had been gin in her orange, she knew now, because she could smell it on her breath. She had broken her promise to her mother; it would bring her bad luck.
‘Ah girls, girls,’ O’Toole said, pushing their bedroom door open. ‘Where’s my lovely Mary? Come out here with me, Mary!’
‘Go to bed, you’re tired,’ Mary said. He caught her hand and started trying to drag her out of the room. She let out a cry.
‘I’ll throw this flowerpot at you if you don’t leave the girl alone,’ Eithne called out.
‘Stupid cows, the lot of you!’ said O’Toole, but he dropped Mary’s hand and took a step backwards. The girls rushed to shut the door and push a heavy chest against it, to keep him out.
They all got into the one big bed, two at the top and two at the bottom. Mary was glad to have the other girls with her.
‘I was at a party. Now I know what parties are like,’ she said to herself, as she tried to force herself to sleep. She heard a sound of water running, but it did not seem to be raining outside. At sunrise she woke up. She had to get home in time for milking, so she put on her dress and shoes and went downstairs.
There was a strong smell of beer. Someone, probably O’Toole, had turned on the taps in the bar, and beer had flowed out of the bar and into the kitchen. Mrs Rodgers would kill somebody. Mary picked her way carefully across the room to the door. She left without even making a cup of tea.
She found her bicycle, but the front tyre was flat, so she walked rapidly, pushing the bicycle. The frost lay on the sleeping windows and roofs. It had magically made the dirty streets look white and clean. She did not feel tired, but simply pleased to be outside, as she breathed in the beauty of the morning.
Mrs Rodgers woke at eight and got out of Brogan’s warm bed. She smelt disaster instantly, and ran to call the others. The girls were made to get up and help clean the floors. Hickey, who had by then come downstairs, said what a shame it was to waste good drink. O’Toole, the guilty one, had left early.
‘And where’s the girl in the black dress?’ Hickey asked.
‘She ran off, before we were up,’ Doris said. They all agreed that Mary was useless and should never have been asked.
‘And she was the one who encouraged O’Toole, and then disappointed him, so he got angry,’ added Doris.
‘I suppose she’s home by now,’ Hickey said.
Mary was half a mile from home, sitting on the grass. If only I had a boy, someone to love, something to hold onto, she thought, as she broke some ice with her shoe and watched the crazy pattern it made. The poor birds could get no food, as the ground was frozen hard. There was frost all over Ireland, frost on the stony fields, and on all the ugliness of the world.
Walking again, she wondered if and what she would tell her mother and her brothers, and if all parties were as bad. She was at the top of the hill now, and could see her own house, like a little white box at the end of the world, waiting to receive her.