Geraldine McCarthy lives in West Cork in the Republic of Ireland. She has been writing creatively for over a year now. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Fable Online and The Incubator Journal and her short story in Seven Deadly Sins: A YA Anthology (Gluttony).
The 8 a.m. bulletin flashed on the little television perched on the worktop. Another gangland murder in Dublin. Bill was finding it harder and harder to watch the news.
"What do you think, Rosie, pet? Should I organise a media blackout?"
The sheepdog shot him a quizzical look, hoping for a crust of bread or some other titbit from the table.
"No, you're right, I'd have withdrawal symptoms if I had to go without."
Rosie got up, wagged her tail and nudged open the back door in order to take her morning frolic around the back meadow.
Bill chided himself for allowing her to sleep at the end of his bed. It was a bad habit to be giving her. Rita would never have approved. But then, Rita was gone. That was the holy all of it. Rita was gone and poor Rosie was only doing her best.
He would need to get a move on and shave. The Mass crowd would be quick to notice if he turned up looking rough. He had started going to the nine o'clock since Rita passed away, two years ago now. It constituted social contact of a sort, which he sadly lacked, alone in the workshop for hours on end.
Still, the carpentry kept him going, a hobby now, rather than a means to make a living. It was hard to remember a time when he wasn't fashioning wood into pieces of furniture. He made a present of his creations to charity auctions, or to friends and neighbours, but sold the odd bit, when approached to make a unique piece. 'Bespoke' they called it nowadays.
He climbed the stairs of the old farmhouse to the bedroom and ran the electric razor over his cheeks, chin, and neck. He thought of the weekend ahead - nothing much on the agenda. Fridays were the hardest days to get over. When Rita was alive they used to collect the pension and do a big grocery shop together on a Friday.
As he came out of the bedroom the landline pealed. He made his way down the stairs to the hall table.
"Hello, Bill. It's Hilda. I was wondering could you drop me down to the bus-stop on your way to Mass? Such a curse to be living out the country."
"No bother, Hilda. Glad to oblige," Bill said, "I'll pick you up shortly."
Hilda, never having learned to drive, was marooned in her house since her husband died. Bill never minded bringing her into the village. She and Rita had been good pals, both obsessed with gardening and cooking, liking nothing better than to swap geranium cuttings or risotto recipes.
Bill shouted goodbye to Rosie and pulled the front door behind him. He sat into the car and started her up, turning with difficulty in the narrow space in front of the house. It was ironic that Hilda depended on him, because he was a poor driver, and old age only made the manoeuvre more tricky.
As he wound his way to Hilda’s place, he admired the profusion of bluebells in the hedgerows, swaying in the gentle breeze.
She was waiting at the front door of her cottage when he pulled up. She sat in, out of breath, as always. "The Lord spare you, Bill. I don't know what I'd do only for you."
"Ah, ‘tis nothing at all, Hilda. Off to Cork, are you?"
"No, just into town for a few messages."
In a matter of minutes they had reached the village.
"There you are now," he said, pulling up at the bus-stop outside Shanahan's pub. "What bus are you coming back on and I'll collect you?"
"I'll be in about twelve, but I can get a cab."
"Not at all. I'll be down for you. Sure it will give me a break from the sawing and chiselling.”
The usual suspects were crossing the churchyard when he arrived. Mrs O'Reilly, who sat up the front, and had a poisonous tongue. Mrs Kane, who preferred the centre aisle, and kept herself to herself. Mrs Duillea, queen of the back seat and all she surveyed. Sometimes he wondered why he came. He went in and took his pew a few rows from the back.
Fr McMahon appeared on the altar and began intoning the prayers. Bill had made it just in time. The nine o'clock was a quick Mass - no sermon, no singing, no trimmings. The priest did the readings, not like on Sundays, when there was a rota. Bill read about every two months. It was his contribution to the parish.
The first part of the Mass passed in a blur. Now they were into the consecration, and Bill was on his knees, praying silently for Rita –“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, may perpetual light shine upon her...” He didn't go to Communion.
As he crossed the yard to his car, the women huddled by the holy water font, making arrangements to go for coffee. They had often invited him, but he always declined. There was an ease with which women could meet up and chat. He preferred the solitude of his workshop, the satisfaction of seeing a project come to fruition.
As he approached the farmhouse a strange red car with English number plates was parked outside. He wondered who could have poked him out, on a country road like this, with grass growing down the middle. He got out of the car and heard Rosie barking at the back of the house. A lady sat in the driver's seat of the English car. She was about fifty.
"Can I help you?" he said, wondering if maybe she had some sort of engine trouble.
The lady opened the car door and alighted. She was tall and elegant, with high cheekbones, and cropped strawberry blond hair, possibly dyed - he found it hard to tell.
She reminded him of someone.
"I'm not sure," she said. "Are you Bill Ryan?"
"Yes, I am."
"I wonder if we could talk?" she said, in clipped London tones.
He didn't know whether he should invite her in, a complete stranger. "Would you like to sit down?" he said, indicating the wooden seat by the front window, a piece which he had carved himself.
"Thank you," she said, arranging her skirt around her knees, squinting in the morning sun. "This is a bit awkward," she said, pausing. "But I'm Peig O'Flahery's daughter."
His mind whirled. He was transported back home to Galway, to his twentieth year, when he and Peig used to walk the prom at Salthill, hand in hand, seagulls swirling.
"Peig's daughter," he echoed. But something was amiss. She didn't look like Peig. "And how is Peig keeping?"
The lady's face clouded. "She passed away last year," she said, needlessly smoothing the lines of her cerise skirt.
Bill absorbed this news. Dear Peig, his first love. He had often thought of what might have been. Her family never approved. His parents' farm wasn't big enough. They weren't important enough. And Bill wasn’t educated enough.
"How did you find me?" Bill asked.
The lady shifted in the seat, crossed her ankles and uncrossed them. "My mother spoke of you a few days before she died. She was aware you had gone to live in West Cork. Your friend Alfie wrote from time to time and kept her filled in."
"Oh!” Silence grew thick between them. “ You haven't told me your name."
"Margaret," she said.
Another memory rose up. " Your mother never liked the name Peig and wished she’d been called Margaret."
"Yes, that's right," she said, a hint of surprise in her voice.
Bill studied her face again, her profile, the Roman nose, the proud bearing, and like a bolt, it hit him. It was his own mother he saw in her.
"When my mother - Peig - spoke of you there was something she told me..."
Bill raised his hand. "Are you my daughter?" he inquired, as gently as possible.
"Yes, I am," she replied, her eyes glistening.
He gazed at her until he could bear it no longer. "Please wait a moment," he said, lightly placing his hand on hers, "I have to see to Rosie, my dog. I'll be back."
In a haze Bill turned the key in the front door, went down the hallway, through the kitchen and out the back door. He poured some water from the outside tap into Rosie's bowl and she began lapping it up, tail wagging. Sitting on a garden seat by the back door, he tried to digest this news. That Peig had a daughter. Their daughter. His daughter.
What would Rita have said? Poor Rita, who had wept and taken to the bed every time a new wave of emptiness came over her. He felt disloyal to her now. For his daughter to appear, like an apparition, after all their years of sadness and longing.
He realised that he had left Margaret alone for too long. He rose from the seat and made his way through the house, savouring its coolness. When he emerged Margaret was pacing up and down, taking deep and swift drags of a cigarette.
"I'm sorry for leaving you like that," he said.
He approached her, placed a hand on her bare arm.
"Maybe it was a bad idea to come?" Her voice wavered.
"It wasn't a bad idea at all," he said, "I was just taken by surprise, that's all. But it's a lovely surprise all the same."
She held the cigarette up above her head, trying to shield him from the smoke.
"Will we have a cup of tea?" he asked.
She gave a half smile. "I wouldn't mind something stronger."
He didn't drink or smoke himself, but kept a bottle of whiskey in the house for visitors. "Of course," he said, "Come into the kitchen."
She followed him down the dark hallway, through to the airy kitchen at the back.
"Please, sit down", he said, swiping a tea-towel from a chair and pulling it out from the table for her.
He wanted to ask why Peig had never made contact. But he was afraid to ask, afraid to put the kibosh on this delicate relationship before it even began.
"I thought my mother's husband was my father," she volunteered. "He died when I was ten. Car accident."
"I see. I’m sorry," Bill replied, his back to her as he foraged in the top press for the bottle of Jameson. He poured a house measure into a Waterford crystal tumbler. "Will I put water in a separate glass for you?"
"No, thank you, I'll sip it neat," she said, looking around the kitchen, noticing the piles of baked bean tins in the see-through recycling bag.
"So, what do you like to do, Bill?"
He turned to face her. "Hobbies, do you mean?"
"Yes, what do you get up to on a Sunday afternoon?"
Bill sat opposite her, his hands tracing the pattern of red roses on the oil-cloth. "I go road bowling," he replied. "It's very popular around here. I don't ever bet on it, though. The other men slag me about that."
He was babbling now. Why did he tell her that? She wouldn't have a clue what road bowling was.
"And what do you get up to yourself?" he asked. “On Sundays, I mean.”
"Oh, I usually end up going for a walk in the park. Ellie and Kate are grown up now, twenty-four and twenty-six."
Grandchildren. Over in England. His own flesh and blood.
He wondered what Mrs O'Reilly would make of this? Or Fr McMahon. Would Bill be struck off the reading rota on Sundays? Would they whisper about him in the coffee shops after morning Mass? Still, there might be no need for them to know. He could always write to Margaret, go over to visit her.
"What are you thinking there, Bill?" Margaret inquired, her voice soft.
"Just that it would be nice to get to know one another through letters. I'm not one for the computer myself. This Skype business baffles me."
"Well, there might not be any need of letters."
He frowned. "I don't understand."
"I'm thinking of moving to Ireland. My marriage ended before Christmas. It was messy. I might make a fresh start."
Dear God, she would be on his doorstep and he would have to come clean and the altar lickers would have a field day.
He appraised this woman once again, his mother's double, bar the London accent and the highlighted hair. What would his mother have advised? That soft and gentle soul, who never spoke ill of anyone.
He took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Margaret, love, that would be wonderful."
He stood to embrace her, casting aside his guilt that Rita had never experienced this.
Glancing at his watch he realised it would soon be time to pick up Hilda from the bus.
"Margaret, I've to collect a neighbour from the village in a few minutes. Would you like to come with me to meet her?"
Margaret’s face lit up. "I would love to," she said.
They left the kitchen, went down the dark hallway and out the front door into the April sun. Bill opened the passenger door for his daughter, before sitting into the car.
As they drove to the village the bluebells danced by the side of the road and Bill marvelled at this new beginning bestowed upon him, so late in life, and he saw that it was good.