A Crowd Is Not Company
Barry Laverty—Doctor Barry Laverty—stood in a jam-packed drawing room where the sound level was as intense as the racket of riveting guns in Harland and Wolff’s shipyard. Over the noise of many conversations the gramophone blared.
How much is that doggie in the window?
Barry smiled and squeezed Patricia Spence’s hand. Having her back home in Ulster was wonderful even if she had left it to the last minute to get here. He looked at her deep brown eyes, bent to her, and tried to make her hear. “Somebody really likes Patti Page. She made that one a hit in 1953. I was thirteen.”
So did Barry—and he smiled. Bertie and Flo Bishop’s 1964 version of their annual Boxing Day hooley was not a place for more than shouted small talk, and if Patricia hadn’t heard Barry, so what? It wasn’t as if she’d been disinterested when he told her how much he loved her, how he wanted to start planning their future here in Ballybucklebo. Och, well, a couple more hours of this wouldn’t matter, and then he would have her to himself and could tell her exactly what was on his mind. And damn it, this was a party.
“I don’t suppose,” he shouted into her ear, “Bertie thinks much of the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five, but I thought he might have a recording of Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman.’ ”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I’d ask him to play it for you.” He squeezed her hand again. Her return was feeble.
Barry sighed. Was he boring her? He couldn’t put his finger on it, but this morning she had seemed different from the laughing girl who’d headed off three months ago to study civil engineering at Cambridge University. She was more distant. More detached. He shook his head. She’d still be tired from travelling, that was all.
He looked around for space, somewhere he could talk to her, ask her if everything was all right, but it seemed the entire population of Ballybucklebo and the surrounding townland was in attendance. It was de rigueur to come to this party. No one refused an invitation from Bertie, and indeed Barry was pleased to have been asked after only six months as an assistant to Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly. Being here was a mark of how well he was fitting into the little community in the north of County Down. Being accepted by the villagers was important. He’d only six more months to go until he became a partner in the practice.
Patricia inclined her head toward the door. Her raven hair fell away from her neck in a rippling wave. By watching her lips he thought he could understand what she was saying. “Let’s see if it’s quieter next door.” She tugged his arm and began to force her way through the throng.
He followed Patricia into the hall, loosening the knot of his tie. He reckoned the anteroom to hell was probably kept at the same temperature. It was less noisy, but they were brought up short by a knot of people.
Barry recognized the carroty thatch of Donal Donnelly. He was fond of Donal, the first denizen of Ballybucklebo Barry had met last July while on his way to his interview with Doctor O’Reilly. Julie Donnelly, née MacAteer, stood beside her husband, who had a tress of her hair firmly clasped between his right thumb and fore-finger. Not for the first time, Barry was struck by the beauty of her long, cornsilk locks.
“I’m for having none of it. The brass neck of the man.” Donal abruptly released Julie’s hair, and the scowl on his usually cheerful face seemed odd at a party. “I’m for telling him to run away off and chase himself, so I am.”
“But Donal, it’s only a few snaps.” Julie sounded calm.
“Huh. For everyone to gawp at? I’m not having it, so I’m not.”
The couple had been married for three weeks, and if this was going to develop into a spat Barry would rather not become involved. But it was too late. Donal swung to him.
“We’ll ask Doctor Laverty, so we will.”
“Ask me what, Donal?”
“Do you see thon man over thonder?” He pointed back into the lounge to a tall, slim, immaculately coiffed individual of about thirty who wore a red velvet jacket and was smoking a cigarette held in an ivory cigarette holder.
Barry nodded. He was aware of Patricia standing at his shoulder.
“He’s a cousin of Bertie Bishop, so he is. Big photographer, like. Has a studio up in Belfast.”
“Like Van Buren’s?” Barry asked, remembering the society photographer who took photos of couples at formal dances. They also did graduation portraits. His mother was very proud of one of Barry in his academic robe.
“I’d not know about that, sir. I’m not much of one for having my snaps took, but thon eejit wants Julie to pose for him.” Donal bared his buckteeth. “It’s not on, so it’s not. Does he think she’s the Venus de Millisle?”
“Milo, Donal. Venus de Milo. Millisle’s a village on the Ards Peninsula down past Donaghadee.”
“Aye. Like enough you’re right.” He glowered at his wife. “But she’s not posing. Not for nobody.”
Barry stole a glance at Donal’s wife. He could understand why Bertie’s cousin wanted her to model. She looked even more stunning than usual. Perhaps it was because—as only she, Donal, Barry, and O’Reilly knew—she was pregnant again.
“What kind of poses?” Patricia asked.
“Ask Julie,” Donal snapped.
Julie smiled. “Mr. Hunter introduced himself, admired my hair, and asked if I’d think about letting him photograph me.”
“Next thing she’ll be in Spick and Span or Men Only, one of them smutty magazines,” Donal said.
“It’s not like that, Donal,” Julie said patiently. She turned to Patricia for support. “Mr. Hunter says one of the big English shampoo companies is having a competition for their next shampoo girl. He thinks I could win it.”
“You might well,” Patricia said. “Your hair is lovely.”
“I’ve said no.” Donal stood legs astraddle, arms folded over his chest. “I’m saying no more.”
“Donal,” Patricia said, “I’d like to hear a bit more about this.” Donal sighed and inclined his head. “Go on then,” he said to Julie. “You tell Miss Spence.”
“He’ll pay me ten pounds each for two sessions. He’s only interested in my hair. He’d pay for hairdos too.”
Donal put one hand against his chin. “Ten pounds?”
“Yes. And if I get into the last five when they start the judging, the company guarantees fifty pounds, even if I only come in fifth. It goes up the better you place. If I come in first, they’ll pay me five hundred pounds and I’ll be on all their advertising and on their labels. I might even get to do a TV ad.”
“Five hundred pounds?” Donal nodded to himself. “That’s a powerful wheen of do-re-mi, so it is.”
It’s more than Donal would make in a year, Barry thought.
“That’s all well and good,” Donal said with a frown. “But nobody does nothing for nothing. What’s in it for him?”
“If my photos win, he gets a prize too and a contract to take pictures for the company,” Julie said. “That’s only fair.”
“It is. You should both think about it,” Patricia said, “but it must be Julie’s decision.”
Donal shook his head. “Not at all. She’s my wife, so she is.”
“It’s Julie who’s going to be photographed,” Patricia said firmly.
Donal looked from Patricia to Julie, back to Patricia, then turned to Barry. “I’m blowed if I know what to say, Doctor. What do you reckon?”
The name’s Laverty, not Solomon, Barry thought. And yet wasn’t resolving dilemmas as much a part of rural medicine as treating coughs and colds, sniffles and sneezes? “I think,” Barry said, “I’d be inclined to leave the choice up to Julie.”
“Would you, sir? Honest to God?”
“Yes. I would. Cross my heart.”
Donal frowned. “I’ll need to think on that for a wee while, sir.” He brightened. “And I’d need a jar to help me.”
“You’ll see Patricia’s right,” Barry said.
“Aye. Likely. Thank you, sir.” He turned away, then back. “Can I get you and Miss Spence one while I’m at it?”
“No thanks, Donal.” Barry glowed. In Ulster the offer to get somebody a drink was a sure sign of fellowship.
Donal set off, pulling Julie by the hand. “ ’Scuse me, Cissie,” he bawled at a heavy woman in a floral dress.
Barry guided Patricia past where Cissie Sloan stood talking, not to, but at, Alice Moloney, the dressmaker, as well as Mrs. Brown and Gertie Gorman. He thought Gertie looked very well for a woman who had delivered a breech baby only ten days ago.
Alice, on the other hand, looked—he struggled to find a good term—ashen. Mind you, she had only just begun treatment for her anaemia. It was probably a trick of the light.
He made a note to pop around to visit her in the next week or two. He liked that aspect of practice here, seeing patients not because they had called, but because you had a notion they might need you. Doctor O’Reilly had taught him that.
This party was not the place for impromptu consultations. He would definitely go to see Alice, but not this week. Patricia was only home for a few days. Tomorrow O’Reilly had agreed to hold the fort so Barry could run her down to her folks’ place in Newry, and he was hoping she’d be back up in time for him to take her to the New Year’s Eve dress dance at Queen’s University. He’d ask her—once he got her on his own.
Barry noticed that Donal, with a pint in hand and Julie by his side, was now in deep conversation with the velvet-coated Mr. Hunter.
“Patricia,” Barry said, “you’ll be going back to Cambridge soon. Why don’t we nip up to Van Buren’s? I’d love to have your portrait.”
“I’ll see, Barry. I’m … I’m going to be a bit busy.”
Barry frowned but decided to let the matter drop until later. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea of having her picture on his bedside table to wake to every morning.
They went through the door and into the hall where Mr. Coffin was explaining something to his friend Constable Mulligan.
The undertaker munched on a sweet mince pie. “Oh yes, Malcolm, I assure you there is quite a bit of alcohol in embalming fluid.”
And by the way Mr. Coffin was swaying in him too. At a party in August, Constable Mulligan had slipped the undertaker a mickey. He’d got a taste for the vodka in his tea, and now Mr. Coffin had forsaken his allegiance to the Pioneers, a teetotal organization. The poor man had rhinophyma, a condition of the sebaceous glands of the nose, and his nose seemed even more bulbous and scarlet than it had been when Barry first met him. It was unfortunate that the music suddenly brayed, “Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer …”
Barry grinned, smiled at the two men, and moved toward the bar in the kitchen. Where there was drink to be had, the odds were good that there also would be Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly.
Even before Barry had steered Patricia through the door he heard his senior colleague. O’Reilly was declaiming in tones that must have stood him in good stead when HMS Warspite, the battleship he’d served on in the war, was smashing her way through the Mediterranean gales, “There’s not enough in that glass to give a gnat an eyewash, Willy Dunleavy. Top it up.” O’Reilly stood in front of a counter where Willy Dunleavy, publican of the Black Swan, known to the locals as the Mucky Duck, served his customary function, ably assisted by his chubby daughter, Mary.
Laugh lines fanned from the corners of O’Reilly’s deep-set brown eyes. His untidily trimmed black hair hung in shaggy fringes over his cauliflower ears. He scratched the side of his bent nose. No respecter of formality, he stood there, the sleeves of his now collarless striped shirt rolled above his elbows. The red braces that held up his tweed pants were taut across his ample stomach.
O’Reilly accepted the brimming glass of John Jameson and Son’s Irish whiskey. “And a glass of—?”
“White wine,” said Kitty O’Hallorhan, who stood near O’Reilly.
“You heard that, Willy?” O’Reilly yelled.
The senior nursing sister from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast waved at Barry, who waved back.
She had supposedly been going home after dinner yesterday, but the snow that had fallen for most of Christmas Day had made the roads impassable. Getting back to Belfast for her regular shift in charge of the neurosurgical ward at the Royal was not an option, so she had telephoned to arrange for a friend to work for her. She had spent the night at O’Reilly’s home at Number 1, Main Street. O’Reilly had been insistent she come to this hooley before she went back to town.
Kitty was talking to the host and hostess, Bertie and Flo Bishop, who because of their stoutness always reminded Barry of John Tenniel’s illustrations of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Kitty, who was in her early fifties, did not. She was slim and chic tonight in a black, knee-length pencil skirt over mulberry stockings and patent-leather pumps. It amazed Barry that any woman could stand for hours in stiletto heels, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
He glanced at Patricia, who was speaking to O’Reilly, and doubted she had noticed Barry’s appraisal of Kitty. The heels accentuated the curve of her calves, and Kitty O’Hallorhan had a very well-turned leg.
Her ivory silk blouse was open at the neck, revealing cleavage. Her nose was a little too large, her lips too full, but her eyes, grey flecked with amber, shone with the laughter that was never far beneath the surface of the woman who had known O’Reilly when they were both students in Dublin. She had come back into the big man’s life five months ago. It would be interesting to see how matters evolved between her and the widower O’Reilly.
“Here you are, Kitty.” O’Reilly handed her a glass and slipped his arm around her waist. “So there you are, Barry. Have you a drink?”
Barry showed his glass of sherry. “I’m fine, Fingal,” he said.
“Patricia?” O’Reilly asked.
“Fine, thank you.”
“Right,” said O’Reilly. “We’ll get away from the bar so other folks can get in.” He let go of Kitty and roared, “Coming through.” O’Reilly, like a bluff-bowed tug, moved ahead and parted the waters.
It seemed miraculous to Barry that the four of them fetched up in a relatively quiet backwater. Kitty and Patricia were already deep in conversation. He was pleased by how the two women had become friends in the short time since they’d met last summer.
O’Reilly lifted his glass and said, “Sláinte.” He drank.
“Sláinte mHaith.” Barry sipped. “Quite the ta-ta-ta-ra,” O’Reilly said. “Are you having fun?”
Barry nodded and said seriously, “And not just at this party, Fingal.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Do I?” said O’Reilly with a smile. “Now there’s a thing. Mind reader, am I?”
Barry smiled. “Fingal, sometimes you can be a tad infuriating.”
O’Reilly guffawed. “Indeed I can be, when it suits me.”
“You do know perfectly well what I’m talking about,” Barry said.
“Fair play to you, Barry. I’ll not tease you anymore. You’re having fun here in Ballybucklebo, aren’t you? That’s what you mean?”
“It is.” Barry nodded. “And in the practice with you, Fingal.”
“Me working you like a Trojan, threatened lawsuits, competition from Doctor Fitzpatrick in the Kinnegar just up the road notwithstanding?” O’Reilly raised one eyebrow.
“You never promised me it would be all plain sailing. I just wanted to thank you for taking me on last July and to tell you, before we go back to full-time work in the new year, I’m going to do my very best in the practice and have every intention of …” He was distracted by a look on Kitty’s face. Her eyes were wide, her brow wrinkled, as she mouthed a single word that, despite his inability to hear above the racket, Barry could lip-read as “No.” Her mouth stayed open.
And as is often the way at cocktail parties, as if on cue everyone stopped talking. Everyone save Patricia Spence, whose voice Barry heard distinctly above the music. “I mean it, Kitty, but I don’t know how I’m going to tell Barry it’s over.”
Excerpted from An Irish Country Courtship by Patrick Taylor.
Copyright © 2010 by Patrick Taylor.
Published in October 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.