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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

An Irish Country Christmas

A Novel

Irish Country Books (Volume 3)

Patrick Taylor

Forge Books


Recommend the Old Inn to Ev'ry Friend
Barry Laverty—Doctor Barry Laverty—slammed the door of Brunhilde, his elderly Volkswagen Beetle. He hunched his shoulders against the sleet and hurried across the car park of the Old Inn in Crawfordsburn, County Down. Night comes early in December in Northern Ireland, and at four-thirty in the afternoon it was barely light enough for him to make out the leafless branches of trees tossing and swaying in the gale, but he could hear the wind battering its way through the glen behind the hotel.
He pushed through the inn's double front door and went down three steps into a well-lit lobby. Blinking at the brightness, he twitched his shoulders up and his neck down as a trickle of water found its way under his collar.
"Hello, John," he said to the manager, who stood behind a reception desk at the far side of the lobby. The middle-aged man looked up and smiled. "Good afternoon, Doctor.
" A little more than a year ago he would have said, "How's about ye, Barry?" The Old Inn was only a few miles away from Barry's parents' home in Bangor. During his years as a medical student, he'd often popped in here for a quick pint, and John had been standing in reception for as long as Barry could remember.
"Dirty day out there," John observed.
"I'm half foundered." Barry rubbed his hands together.
"There's a nice cosy fire lit in the Parlour Bar, sir."
"I'm going to the reception."
"The Donnelly-MacAteer party's in the Guests Lounge, but Doctor O'Reilly's just gone into the Parlour Bar. He said to tell you if you came in."
Typical, Barry thought, of Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, the senior man in the practice where Barry worked, to be slipping out to the bar for a quick drink. He knew Julie MacAteer's parents were Pioneers—teetotalers— so the party would be what was called in Ulster an orange juice reception.
"Thanks." Barry shrugged out of his raincoat. "I'll just park this and then nip in and get warm."
He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror mounted at the back of the coat stand. Blue eyes with dark rings beneath looked back from an oval face. At twenty-four he was too young for the dusky half circles to be a permanent feature, but he'd attended a confinement for most of the night. Although he might be tired, he thought the woman he'd just delivered of a healthy seven-pound five-ounce boy would be a lot more so. He yawned. His fair hair was darkened, soaked, and plastered to his scalp. At least his cow's lick wasn't sticking up like the crest on a tufted duck.
Barry hung his coat, ran his hands over his hair, turned, and walked along a short, carpeted corridor to the bar. He wondered if Colette the barmaid, a big, motherly woman, would be on duty tonight.
This part of the building, he knew, had been an old coaching inn built in 1614, and generations of owners had very sensibly preserved the whitewashed daub-and-wattle walls and the heavy, rough-hewn, black ceiling beams. C. S. Lewis had stayed here in 1958 with his wife, Joy, for what he called "a perfect fortnight."
Barry went through a door to his left into a low-ceilinged room where a turf fire blazed in a wide grate. After the bitter cold of the day outside, the heat was stifling, but the scent of the burning peat was familiar and comforting to him. There were several men in the room, most standing at the bar, a few in booths beside the wall. Barry heard a murmuring of conversation. The smells of damp tweed and cigarette smoke mingled with the aroma of peat. He could hear the sleet outside rattling off the curtained windows.
"You," roared Doctor Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, who stood leaning against the bar,"look like a drowned rat. Come on in and have a jar."
"Thanks, Fingal."
"What'll you have?"
Barry rapidly rubbed his hands together, feeling them tingle as the circulation returned. "Hot Irish, please."
O'Reilly turned to the barmaid, who stood behind the marble-topped bar polishing a straight pint glass with a dish towel. "Do you hear that, Colette?"
"Hot half-un it is, Doctor."
"Half-un be damned. Give him a double."
"How are you, Colette?" Barry asked, turning his back on O'Reilly, shaking his head at her, and mouthing silently, "Just a half." A double whiskey on top of his tiredness could be the end of him.
Her smile was wide and welcoming as she nodded her understanding of his order and said, "Grand, so I am. Haven't seen you in for a wee while."
"I've been busy—"
"Jesus, lass, would you give the young fellah his jar?" O'Reilly said.
"Coming up." She moved away and switched on an electric kettle.
"Now, Doctor Laverty," growled O'Reilly, "where the hell have you been?"
Barry looked at the big man's florid, craggy face, bushy eyebrows, and his bent nose with a distinct list to port. O'Reilly was in his shirtsleeves, red braces holding up his tweed pants. A glass—a large glass—of what Barry knew would be Irish whiskey was clutched in one hand.
"Working? When I left the house for the wedding, the door to the surgery was still shut, but there were only a couple of customers in the waiting room. Nu-ala Harkness never takes long."
"Maybe not for you, Fingal. You've known the woman for nearly twenty years."
O'Reilly grunted. "And Harry ‘The Boots' Hawthorne."
"Harry ‘The Boots' Hawthorne. They call him that because when he was first married his wife told her best friend he was so virile that when he came in from the fields and feeling his oats, wanting her, he wouldn't even take the time to get his boots off."
Barry laughed. "I've read Napoleon was like that with Josephine."
"Maybe Harry'd read it too. Anyway the wife's friend told her husband, and he told …"
Barry nodded. He had already experienced just how quickly news could fly around the village of Ballybucklebo.
"So now the lads won't let him live it down, and they call him Harry the Boots. He usually comes in for a tonic, and you can finish with him in five minutes."
Barry shook his head. "You can, Fingal, but I've only been here for a few months, and if I want to know the patients as well as you I have to spend a bit of time getting to know them."
"I suppose so," O'Reilly frowned. "But two more shouldn't have taken you until now. We expected to see you at the service."
"Harry took longer than I expected; then Jeannie Jingles phoned. She thought her wee Eddie had croup and—"
"And you went to see the lad?" There was a hint of paleness in the tip of O'Reilly's nose, a sure sign that his temper was not entirely under control.
"I know you're meant to be on call today for emergencies, Fingal, but—"
"You thought you'd do me a favour?" The pallor spread.
"Not a favour. You were already in the church. It made sense to me to call in and see the kiddie. I thought it would only take a minute."
"Huh. Some minute. The service was over at two thirty. You should have been there."
"I'm sorry." Barry held one hand at shoulder height, palm out."If I'd known I was depriving you of the pure delights, the immensely satisfying medical moments of seeing one more case of common croup, I'd have sent a police escort to haul you out of your pew."
O'Reilly managed a chuckle. "Alright. Have it your own way. Work yourself into an early grave if that's what you want. See if I give a tinker's damn." The laugh lines deepened at the corners of his eyes.
"Jesus, Fingal, I just thought it made sense."
O'Reilly clapped Barry on the shoulder. "You're right this once, Barry, but … but … an agreement's an agreement." O'Reilly swallowed a mouthful of whiskey. "We decided in August, when you were ready to work on your own, we'd split the work."
"And haven't we? One of us in the surgery to see the minor cases, the other one out doing home visits and taking calls at night. I thought it was working fine."
O'Reilly grunted. "You were up half the bloody night. I'm on call today."
One thing Barry had learnt. He must never cave in to O'Reilly. He looked the older man right in the eye. "It was a bloody good thing I went. The little lad had a raging pneumonia. I had to get him up to the Royal Victoria Hospital immediately."
"Had he, by God?" O'Reilly's eyebrows met above his nose as he frowned. "Lobar was it?"
"As best as I could tell without an X-ray."
O'Reilly took a deep swallow of his whiskey, clapped Barry on the shoulder, and said, "Maybe you did do the right thing."
"I think so."
"So do I." O'Reilly nodded. "But as of this minute, Doctor Barry Laverty, I'm on call." At least his nose tip was its usual plum colour.
"Fine, Fingal."
"And Kinky knows where to find me if anything crops up."
"She's not at the reception?" Barry was surprised. Mrs. "Kinky" Kincaid, the Cork woman who was O'Reilly's housekeeper, was usually very much a part of the Ballybucklebo social scene.
"She was invited. She came with me to the service, but she said she was feeling a bit snifflish and didn't want to be out in that bloody awful gale. She went home. She asked me to apologize to Julie."
"Is Kinky all right?"
"Kinky? Right as rain. She has the constitution of an ox, that woman." He lowered his voice. "I think there was a program on the telly she really wanted to see."
Barry smiled at his mental picture of Kinky, who was as she once described herself "very tall around," curled up with a cup of tea in front of her television set. He wondered if Lady Macbeth, O'Reilly's white cat, would be keeping Kinky company. His thoughts were interrupted by "Here y'are, sir." Colette handed Barry a steaming mug. "Two and six, please."
"Here." O'Reilly threw coins on the bar top. "But I thought I called for a double."
"A wee half's just fine, Fingal." Barry sipped, savouring the flavours of a mixture of Irish whiskey, sugar, and lemon juice topped off with boiling water. He noticed a couple of cloves floating on the surface. "Sláinte."
"Sláinte mHath." O'Reilly finished his whiskey and put the glass on the bar. "Being as it's me on call, I'd better go easy on the grog." He clapped Barry on the shoulder. "But you're not, so you can enjoy the reception"—he stepped back from the bar—"which is where the pair of us should be now. Come on."
"You go on, Fingal. I'll catch you up."
O'Reilly frowned. "Where are you going?"
"Jesus, Fingal. A policeman wouldn't ask you that."
O'Reilly laughed. "Need to shed a tear for the old country?"
Barry nodded and finished his drink. It wouldn't be polite to bring a whiskey to a teetotal reception. He left the bar, crossed the main corridor, and slipped into a small bathroom. He unzipped.
This would be, he thought, the second wedding he'd attended since he'd started working in the village of Ballybucklebo, which lay seven miles west of Crawfordsburn. He remembered, would always remember, his first trip there and his introduction to O'Reilly. The date of that meeting, July 1, 1964, was, as he had heard the older man say when referring to another never-to-be-forgotten moment, "tattooed on the inside of the front of his skull."
Barry had been standing outside the front door of O'Reilly's house when O'Reilly himself had appeared and bodily flung a patient into a rosebush, with the bellowed admonition, "The next time you come here after hours on my half day and want me to look at your sore ankle, wash your bloody feet!" Barry had almost turned tail.
He was glad now he hadn't. In the five months during which he had gone from probationary assistant to assistant, with a view to a full partnership in one year, he had learnt a great deal about the practice of medicine in a rural setting. He had also come to know and like many of O'Reilly's patients.
He rezipped his pants. The last wedding he'd been to, in August, was of Sonny Houston to Maggie Mac-Corkle, both sixty-plus, both odd as two left feet. Sonny had a Ph.D. but preferred to live in an old motorcar. Maggie had at one time complained of headaches that were two inches above the crown of her head. Barry had initially thought she was mad as a hatter, but O'Reilly had known better. He usually did.
Barry chuckled and headed for the Guests' Lounge. Today's happy couple had originally planned to have a double wedding with Sonny and Maggie, but Julie, who was already pregnant at the time, had miscarried before the big day, and the event had been postponed until now.
Today, he thought as he opened the door to the lounge, Donal Donnelly has finally made an honest woman of Julie MacAteer. It had to be expressed that way because the odds of Julie making an honest man of Donal were very remote.
To Barry's knowledge, Donal was paying for the reception with money he had accumulated in July from a suspiciously fixed bet made on his racing greyhound, Bluebird, and from a more recent scheme selling Irish coins embossed with the image of a racehorse for eight times their face value. Donal had managed that by persuading an unsuspecting Englishman the coins were valuable medallions struck in honour of the great Irish steeplechaser, Arkle. It would not surprise Barry if Donal Donnelly tried to sell the Ballybucklebo maypole to an American tourist. It would only be surprising if the attempt failed.
The door closed quietly behind him, and he moved
Excerpted from AN IRISH COUNTRY CHRISTMAS by Patrick Taylor
Copyright © 2009 by Patrick Taylor
Published in 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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.