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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

An Irish Country Family

An Irish Country Novel

Irish Country Books (Volume 14)

Patrick Taylor; read by John Keating

Macmillan Audio



Home and Beauty

April 11, 1969

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.” Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, swept into the upstairs lounge of Number One Main Street, Ballybucklebo, yawned, and rubbed his gritty eyes.

“You look more like the wreck of the Hesperus,” his wife, Kitty, said from where she sat in an armchair in front of a set but unlit fire. Their little white cat, Lady Macbeth, was curled up in Kitty’s lap. She put a Dick Francis mystery on a wine table beside her. “Seriously, Fingal, I know you got your feet up for a while yesterday afternoon, but you were out again at midnight and you didn’t come home until five this morning.”

O’Reilly crossed the room and dropped a kiss on the top of her head, noting fondly that her raven hair was more than just tipped with silver. “Sorry if I disturbed you, my dear.” He leant against the mantel. “Time, tide, and arriving newborns wait for no man. It took a while for me and Miss Hagerty, the midwife, to get everything squared away. You remember Aileen MacCormack, the plumber’s wife?”

“Cheerful redhead? Baby number two?”

“That’s her. She and her child, all nine pounds of baby boy, are doing well.” He yawned.

Kitty shook her head. “I know you enjoy midder, but you’ve a couple of youngsters in the call rota, one of them with extra training in obstetrics. Ever think of giving it up?”

O’Reilly shook his head.

“I’m not complaining,” Kitty said, “but you know very well I hardly sleep when you’re out on a call.” She crossed her legs, trying not to disturb the sleeping cat. “Fortunately, you’re not on call as much now. Even if you still want to deliver babies, one in four nights and weekends isn’t bad. Not like when it was just Barry and you.”

“Gives me more time with my lovely wife, and I’d get even more time with her if she’d think about slowing down too.” He’d been encouraging her for more than a year about this, but she loved her job as senior neurosurgical operating theatre sister at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Kitty shook her head. “We can talk about it, but not now. Not now. How was your refresher course for GP trainers today?” She looked at her watch. “Five fifteen. You made good time from Belfast.”

“Traffic wasn’t too bad.” The two exchanged a glance. “We both enjoyed the course. Young Laverty’s turning into a first-class teacher. I’m very lucky to have him as a partner.” O’Reilly yawned again. “Had lunch with Professor George Irwin, Department of General Practice. He’s impressed with Barry too. But George isn’t sure he can find an assistantship here in Ulster for Emer McCarthy when she finishes her stint with us.” O’Reilly pursed his lips. “It’s worrying. It’s April the eleventh today and she’ll be leaving us on July thirty-first. She’s a fine lass. I should be able to do something for her. I really should.”

“And knowing you, you probably will, but that’s three months away, Fingal, and getting your knickers in a twist now isn’t going to help her find a job, is it?”

“No. It’s not.” He shook his shaggy head. “You’re right.”

Kitty nodded once. “I am right. You’ll only get her worried too. So instead of fretting about your trainee, what you need now is a good brisk walk in the fresh air, so go on. Give young Kenny a run too. The dog needs his exercise.” She patted O’Reilly’s tummy. “And he’s not the only one.”

O’Reilly grunted, stood up straight, and sucked in his gut. He offered his hand. “Coming?”

Kitty smiled. “No. Thanks, Fingal. Not this evening. We had an astrocytoma today. Brain tumour cases always take a while. I was scrub-sister for Mister Charlie Greer. On my feet six and a half hours. I think a visit to the Duck by yourself would be good for you, but be home for seven. Kinky was here today. Polished all the silver, hoovered every square inch of the place, and made a fresh batch of tomato soup, and beef and dumplings for me to heat up.”

“Yum,” said O’Reilly, unsure whether the prospect of a pint in the Duck and a bit of craic with the locals or one of Kinky Auchinleck’s dinners with Kitty was the more appealing. His tummy rumbled.

“Go on with you, dear old bear,” Kitty said, “and give me peace to read more of Blood Sport. The hero, Gene Hawkins, is on the trail of a kidnapped—if that’s the right word—thoroughbred racehorse, and he’s in all kinds of trouble. You’ll enjoy it when I’ve finished.” She picked up her book.

“I do love you, Mrs. O’Reilly. Seven sharp it is.”

* * *

The Black Swan public house, known to the locals as the Mucky Duck, was a short walk from Number One Main Street, but O’Reilly and Kenny had taken the long way so they could make a stop at the shore. O’Reilly watched Kenny kicking up little sprays of sand as he raced after a series of sticks. Apart from a couple wandering along the tideline, O’Reilly and the chocolate Lab had the shore to themselves. The cries of a line of oyster catchers and the wavelets’ insistent soft whispering just heightened the peace of the early Ulster evening. “Heel, Kenny,” O’Reilly called, and when the big dog tucked in they retraced their steps under a mackerel sky.

Now O’Reilly and Kenny entered the pleasant fug of the low-ceilinged room to a chorus of cheerful greetings. “Good evening to this house,” said O’Reilly, and beamed at Willie Dunleavy.

Willie nodded and put a pint of Guinness on the pour. As he let the first pull settle, the tubby publican decanted a pint of Smithwick’s into a stainless steel bowl for Kenny.

O’Reilly smiled. This wasn’t telepathy at work. The man had been pouring Guinness for O’Reilly and beer for his gundogs since 1946. The feeling of continuity and changelessness was second nature, and very comforting.

A voice rose above the rest. O’Reilly recognised Lenny Brown. “Hey, I just seen pictures of them pair of buck eejits John Lennon and Yoko Ono having a ‘bed in’ at an Amsterdam hotel.”

“I seen that on telly two weeks ago. You’re behind the times, ould hand,” Gerry Shanks said, and laughed. “‘Make love, not war.’ Sounds good to me. Maybe they could do one at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast.”

There was a general muttering of agreement, O’Reilly thought. Things were still simmering in Ulster.

“Evening, Doctor.” Bertie Bishop sat at a nearby table with Donal Donnelly’s best mate, Dapper Frew, the estate agent. “Care to join us, sir?”

“Be my pleasure.” O’Reilly lowered his big frame into a chair and ushered Kenny under the table.

The chocolate Lab lay down with a happy grunt.

“Evening, gentlemen,” O’Reilly said. “How’s the world abusing you both?”

“We’re doing rightly,” Bertie Bishop said, but frowned. “We are, but poor ould Ulster’s still got her worries. Your man Gerry’s notion of ‘make love, not war’ sounds like what’s needed.”

“Excuse me, sir. Your drink.” Willie Dunleavy set a pint in front of O’Reilly and put Kenny’s bowl under the table. In moments, a feisty Chihuahua named Brian Boru had joined his young friend. Sounds of lapping drifted up to the table. Willie looked down and shook his head. “Sorry, sir. I keep telling Mary to keep yon animal on a leash but she’s a soft heart, that daughter of mine.”

O’Reilly laughed. “Daylight bloody robbery. I remember when a pint cost a shilling.” He handed Willie five shillings.

“Just after the war, sir.” Willie pocketed the coins.

O’Reilly glanced under the table. “Kenny likes to share his pint with his friend, just like Arthur did before him.” Good old Arthur. O’Reilly shook his head and raised his glass to Willie, and then to the table. “Sláinte.” The pull he took on his drink left a white tidemark one-third the way down the glass.

Dapper looked down at the two dogs and rolled his eyes. “Anyroad, there’s none of that there nonsense going on here in Ballybucklebo, praise be.”

“Aye, you’re right, Dapper, and I’m very glad you dropped in tonight, Doctor, so I am. We could use your advice.”

O’Reilly looked from one man to the other as Bertie took a sip from the one pint a day he was allowed since his heart attack. As usual, the councillor was wearing a three-piece dark blue wool suit with the gold chain of a fob watch looped tightly across his still (despite his wife’s best efforts) ample belly. A Masonic emblem in gold hung from the chain.

O’Reilly had never heard exactly why John Frew had been nicknamed “Dapper,” but perhaps it reflected the neatness of his slim moustache, the set of his grey blazer, and the razor crease in his charcoal flannels.

O’Reilly looked around the pub. Usually when a scheme was underway, the prime mover was Donal Donnelly. But the bucktoothed, carroty-headed carpenter was not to be found. “All right, fire away.”

Bertie leaned forward and spoke, so he could, with some difficulty, be heard over the rising din of the pub on a Friday night. “The rebuilding of the Donnellys’ cottage, Dun Bwee, is coming on a treat. Can you believe it’s been three and a half months since thon awful fire just after Christmas?” Bertie shook his head. “The outside walls is all done. Donnacha Flynn and his son have finished the thatching and gone home til County Kerry. All the interior walls is finished, doors is being painted and hung, windows framed and glazed. Donal and his crew has done a great job. The whole thing’ll be finished sometime in May.”

“By God, I’m delighted to hear it,” O’Reilly said, taking a second pull on his pint, leaving a fresh tidemark two-thirds down the glass, “but how can I help?”

“Me and Dapper here have a notion. Never mind all the other rubbish going on in Belfast, here in Ballybucklebo everybody’s pitched in to see the Donnellys right. When they’re ready til move I’d like,” he glanced at Dapper, “that is Dapper and me’d like to give a housewarming hooley for Donal and his family and the whole community. It’d be fun for Donal and show the rest of the eejits in the wee North we can get along together if we try.”

“Admirable,” O’Reilly said. “You know, Bertie Bishop, for the worshipful master of the local Orange Lodge, you’ve a very open mind.”

Bertie Bishop shrugged. “I’m not devout nor nothing, but me and Flo goes til church of a Sunday. I know in the past I’ve sometimes been a tough nut, but see thon heart attack?” He inhaled. “Since then I’ve no trouble with this ‘love thy neighbour’ thing, and I’ve another way I think we can make that work here.”

O’Reilly was intrigued.

“The morrow’s the last home game of the season for the Ballybucklebo Bonnaughts rugby team. They’re playing the Portaferry Pirates. You’ll be there, Doctor?”

“Mrs. O’Reilly and I wouldn’t miss it,” O’Reilly said.

Bertie waved an all-encompassing arm around the room. “This here’s the social centre of our wee village. No orange-and-green rubbish here, but do youse notice anything strange?”

O’Reilly frowned and saw Dapper do likewise. As far as O’Reilly was concerned it was a typical Friday night, except perhaps for the notable absence of one Donal Donnelly.

“Donal’s not here,” said O’Reilly.

“He’s taken his family to Rasharkin to see Julie’s folks. I borrowed him my van,” Bertie said.

Dapper frowned. “Must be the only pub in Ulster with a couple of piss-artist dogs under a table.”

“Och,” Bertie said, “run away on, Dapper. Sure, it’s plain as the nose on your face. No women, and that’s the same in every public bar in Ulster.”

“Because,” Dapper said, “that’s the law in public bars. You need a lounge bar or a snug for ladies and their escorts. The Duck’s too wee for either.” He grunted. “You can’t even have any singing or dancing.”

“I know that,” Bertie said, “and the ladies go out in the daytime with their friends to that wee tearoom The Singing Kettle when we’re at our work. But we need a place we can all get together of an evening.”

O’Reilly nodded. Bertie had a point.

“I think we might be able til put the clubhouse til better use.”

A voice O’Reilly recognised as belonging to Alan Hewitt rose above the hubbub. “Away off and chase yourself, Malcolm Mulligan. That there Concorde 002 aeroplane never went faster than sound, so it never. It was only up in the air for twenty-two bleedin’ minutes. I don’t think it’ll ever go supersonic.”

Ballybucklebo’s long arm of the law, Constable Mulligan, laughed and said, “Only thing goes that fast is Cissie Sloan’s mouth.” A reference to Ballybucklebo’s resident chatterbox.

Not until the universal burst of good-natured laughter had died down did Bertie say, “It’s only a half-baked notion I have now. I need til get some advice and think on it some more, but I’ll have my ducks in a row by the morrow.”

“Fair enough,” O’Reilly said. He was quite willing to wait. “Now, about this hooley, Bertie, I’m thinking we’ll want it kept secret from the Donnellys until the last minute.”

“That was my notion as well, Doctor.”

O’Reilly finished his pint. “Dapper?” As the physician who had restricted Bertie Bishop to a pint a day, he could hardly offer the man a drink.

“You’re a gentleman, Doctor. Please.”

O’Reilly held up two fingers so Willie could see, and was rewarded with a short nod and Willie’s attention to the pumps.

“Aye,” said Bertie. “And we’d like for everyone who helped til be there, and all youse doctors—”

“Someone will have to be on call,” O’Reilly said.

Bertie shook his head. “There’ll be a phone in Dun Bwee by then.”

O’Reilly frowned. “Usually takes months for the General Post Office to connect a new line.”

Bertie assumed his Councillor Bishop expression. “Not if you know the right people.” He grinned. “I’ll say no more, but there’ll be a phone at Dun Bwee all right.”

“Fair enough,” O’Reilly said, thinking that who you knew, not what you knew, was very much a fact of life in rural Ulster. He approved.

“And we’d like til have Father O’Toole and the Reverend Robinson, the Presbyterian minister, both say a few words,” Dapper said. “And, well, Mister Bishop and me knows it’s a bit impertinent, like, but do you think…”

“Excuse me.” Willie set two fresh pints on the table and removed the empty glasses.

“Thanks, Willie,” O’Reilly said, and paid. “Cheers.”

“Thanks, Doc. Cheers.” Dapper raised his glass. He wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand. “Do you think Lord MacNeill and his sister would come? They’ve been so decent in all of this, so they have.”

“His lordship,” Bertie said, “has a heart of corn. You’d think all of us was his family.”

And to an extent we are, O’Reilly thought, and I for one count myself lucky to have John MacNeill a friend. “You can leave that one with me. I’ll approach his lordship once we have planning matters farther along.”

“Dead on,” said Dapper.

“Some of it will be easy,” Bertie said. “My Flo and Cissie Sloan and, I’m sure, Kinky’ll want to look after the catering.” He puffed out his chest.

Oh-oh, O’Reilly thought, Bertie’s going to address the meeting, but to his surprise Bertie shook his head, chuckled, perhaps at himself, and deflated. “I’ll take care of the drinks and ask Willie or Mary to serve behind the bar.”

“You’ll pay, Bertie?” O’Reilly remembered a man who not so long ago would have squeezed a penny until it squeaked.

“Not exactly,” Bertie said. “My building company will—as a legitimate tax-deductible, once-only bonus to my workers and a goodwill gesture to the others.”

“That’s dead decent, Mister B.,” Dapper said.

Bertie Bishop shrugged. “There’s no pockets in a shroud. Mind, Doctor, when your brother Lars put a word in with the National Trust to get permission to rebuild Dun Bwee and gave me a hand too with some business? I’d like him to come.”

“Fair enough.” Lars had helped Bertie Bishop draw up a will with many provisions for the Donnelly family. O’Reilly wondered if Bertie had told Donal about it yet. “It sounds like it’s going to be quite the operation.” Without being asked or having volunteered, O’Reilly seemed to have been co-opted onto the planning committee. Oh well, hadn’t he been up to his neck, and happy to be, in village affairs for more than two decades. He glanced at his watch, finished his pint, and rose. “You’ll keep me posted?” he said.

“Indeed, we will,” Bertie said, “but we know you’re busy, so we’ll have a couple of planning sessions first before we come after you for advice.”

“Grand,” said O’Reilly. “Now, I promised Kitty I’d be home by seven for Kinky’s beef stew.”

Dapper Frew looked at the packet of potato crisps he’d been eating and sighed as O’Reilly raised his voice. “Goodnight to all.” Making a small bow in acknowledgement of the farewell from the room, he summoned Kenny and made for the exit. The bat-wing doors closed behind him and he started on the short walk home. Overhead the sinking sun shared the sky with a just-risen crescent moon, and O’Reilly turned the collar of his jacket to the evening chill. There’s one for the books, he thought. A plot was brewing in Ballybucklebo of which Donal Donnelly was to be the recipient rather than the originator. The biter bit, but in a most pleasant way.

O’Reilly was still smiling as he put Kenny into his doghouse and headed for the back door of Number One Main Street and the fragrant aroma of beef and dumplings.

Copyright © 2019 by Ballybucklebo Co.