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A Party in a Parlour
The Dublin coddle had been cooked to perfection and Doctor Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly had not been able to resist the sherry trifle for dessert.
"That was very good," he said, looking wistfully at the few smears of cream, custard, and strawberry jam on his otherwise empty plate. "I think I'll have a second..."
Kitty O'Reilly grinned. "Fingal, my love, you're already having a bit of difficulty getting into your gear. Don't forget, we have a formal black tie dinner tonight. You want to look your best for me, don't you?"
"Of course," he said. "For you? Anything." And while he seemed to say it in jest, one look into those amber-flecked grey eyes told him that inside he really meant it. He beckoned to the waitress in the familiar little restaurant on Dublin's Leeson Street, asked her for the bill, paid, then rose and helped Kitty to her feet. "How do you fancy a stroll, bit of a leg stretch? Work our lunches down? It's not too far back to the Shelbourne Hotel even if we go the long way round."
"Love it," she said, "for old times' sake." She took and squeezed his hand. "Remember I used to have a flat here on Leeson Street thirty years ago?"
"I do," he said, preferring not to recall too clearly that night, in 1936, when she'd told him that he'd put his work ahead of her once too often, and that as a couple they were finished. "And I remember," he said, "walking you from your hospital on Baggot Street to get to that very restaurant we've just been in."
They were turning onto Wilton Terrace, on the north bank of the Grand Canal, both relishing the walk in the crisp, late-September air, heading in the direction of Mount Street. The lawn that bordered the canal was dotted with widely spaced trees. He looked across the expanse of grass to the narrow waters and the reed-lined bank of the far shore. "It was a Sunday, I think," he said. "We were coming along the other side of the canal, and we stopped for a bit of craic with an old boy who was repairing the retaining wall. He and I smoked our pipes, as I recall, while he told us the history of An Canáil Mor."
"And then," she said, "you chatted with a bunch of stark-naked kids from the Liberties, swimming in the canal. Remember how hot it was?"
... wherein the good old slushy mud seagulls did sport and play ...
He sang a snatch from "Down by the Liffey Side," perhaps not entirely appropriate for the canal, but overhead real gulls soared and made harsh, high-pitched gulla-gulla-gulla screams on a breeze that brought the Dublin smells of traffic exhausts and mudflats of the nearby great river at low tide.
"One of the gurriers was a patient, and you gave him a bag of sweeties, and he called you 'the Big Fellah.' I could see how you were respected in the Liberties because you cared for your patients, and I loved you for it." She walked closer to him and he put his arm around her waist. "I've always loved you, Fingal," she said.
He hung his head. It was, he felt, superfluous to echo the sentiments like a moonstruck sixteen-year-old. He knew he did and she knew and that was what mattered. As they passed under the bridge carrying Baggot Street, he couldn't resist saying, "A lot of water has run under the bridge since then-"
"That," she said, "was a terrible pun, Fingal O'Reilly, or whatever-"
"It was a metaphor-"
"Right. A metaphor, a terrible metaphor, but a true one."
They were all alone under the bridge.
She grasped the lapels of his tweed jacket and kissed him. They parted and walked on, holding hands. "I love you and I love Dublin where we met," she said. "Strumpet City, Dirty Dublin, Baile Átha Cliath-the town at the ford at the hurdles."
O'Reilly smiled. "Me too."
He pointed to where a barge, brightly painted, engine putt-putting, diesel smoke belching from its funnel, butted blunt bows west heading for the midlands of Ireland. "Horses pulled most of them when we were youngsters here," he said, and thought, But you can't turn back the clock.
In its passing, the vessel chased a flock of mallard. The birds, sunlight shining from the drakes' emerald heads, flared, rose together, then circled, setting their wings, and pitching back into the canal with much ploughing of watery furrows, squabbling, and tail pecking.
"I've always loved ducks," he said. "Maybe it's time to put my gun away, but I'd miss Strangford Lough so much."
"And so would Arthur Guinness, the great lummox. He is a gun-dog, after all."
"You're right," he said, pulling her up the steps by the next bridge to Mount Street Lower. "Do you know I once assisted a gynaecologist in a private house here. He removed an ovarian cyst right in the woman's bedroom. My old boss, Phelim Corrigan, gave the anaesthetic."
"Such different times," she said. "Surgery's all done by specialists in hospitals now." She swung their hands in a wide arc. "Here we are. Merrion Square. Do you remember when we stopped to listen to a man haranguing a crowd of Blue Shirts about the Spanish Civil War?"
"I do. And I remember you insisting we stay to listen," and a few weeks later going off to Spain, my Kitty, he said to himself. My own fault, but it had hurt like hell. "And when you'd heard enough, we called for Bob Beresford, who had a flat here, and the three of us went to the horse races." O'Reilly's heart ached doubly for the lost years that might have been spent with Kitty, and for his long-dead friend. He said nothing for a while, remembering. Remembering.
Today, and indeed the rest of this weekend, was certainly a time for memories. In a few hours, he and Kitty would get into their best bibs and tuckers to attend the opening cocktail reception and welcoming dinner for the thirtieth reunion of their 1936 medical school class at Trinity College. But those were fond memories, happy ones, and he recalled a snatch from an ancient English folk song he'd had to learn at school,
Begone dull care, I prithee begone from me
Begone dull care, thou and I shall never agree
"Right," he said, "time to get back to the Shelbourne. We'll cut across Merrion Square, nip along Merrion Street Upper, and take Merrion Row to Saint Stephen's Green. I'd like a nap before we have to start getting ready for tonight's festivities."
"Come on then," she said. "I do want you rested, and I'm really looking forward to seeing you in your naval uniform. I'll never forget the sight of you in it at one New Year's Eve formal dance when we were both students."
And Fingal O'Reilly, who hated formal dress, would for her sake struggle into his number one uniform in lieu of a dinner suit and black tie, ready to forge more memories of happy times together.
* * *
O'Reilly clapped as the applause grew for Sir Donald Cromie, plain "Cromie" to his closest friends, who had risen in his place at their table in a private dining room of Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel. He jangled a fork on an empty glass, and the high-pitched sound rose with the buzz of conversations and laughter, and the clink of cutlery on china, to the white-plastered ceiling, there to mingle with a cloud of pipe, cigar, and cigarette smoke.
O'Reilly winked at Kitty, who smiled back. God, but he loved that smile. He surveyed the other graduates from the Trinity College School of Physics, class of '36, and their spouses who had assembled for the opening cocktail party and banquet of their reunion. Sitting round linen-draped tables, most of the men wore sombre dinner suits, their satin lapels shiny, and the ladies added bright counterpoint in their evening gowns or cocktail dresses. The opposite, he thought, of dowdy ducks and flamboyant drakes like the mallard he and Kitty had seen earlier on the Grand Canal.
He looked back at Kitty. Her sleeveless empire-line dress of shot emerald green silk was punctuated by a corsage of deep pink moth orchid that his brother Lars had grown in his own greenhouse. She sported matching pink satin opera gloves, and her hair was cut in a pageboy style to frame her face. Kitty O'Reilly was, in his opinion, by far the most elegant and desirable woman here. And he wasn't the teeniest bit biased.
He grinned at the thought and tugged at the collar of his Royal Navy mess kit dress uniform jacket, with his medal ribbons on the left breast. He should have been wearing miniature medals, not just the ribbons, but for very personal reasons he hated his decorations, one in particular, but no one here would care that he was in breach of regulations, and it had been a long time since he had left the navy. He'd have been a damn sight more comfortable in tweed pants and a sports jacket, but the conventions must be observed. Kitty liked him to wear the damn monkey suit to formal occasions, and there was nothing O'Reilly would not do to please her. Two other people were similarly dressed. A fellow O'Reilly had barely known was in the full kit of an RAF squadron leader, medical. One of the women was in the dress mess kit of an officer in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Navy Nursing Service, with whose nursing sisters he had worked closely in Haslar hospital in 1940.
"Settle down, now, settle down," Cromie said, and the hum of conversation and clapping began to fade. "I know we've all got a lot of catching up to do, but first I must make a few announcements."
O'Reilly knew he should turn and start paying attention, but his gaze lingered over the little crowd. Thirty-five years ago the now middle-aged doctors had begun their medical studies as fresh-faced youths and a few lasses. As Donal Donnelly, Ballybucklebo's arch schemer and mangler of the English language, might have said today, "Back then the world had been everyone's lobster." O'Reilly shook his head. A lot had happened in those thirty-five years. He still had a full head of hair and wore his half-moon spectacles only for effect, but spectacles and thinning hair, if not bald pates, were the order of the day now. Charlie Greer, once a flaming redhead, now looked like a tonsured monk, with only a fringe of remaining hair. Used-to-be athletes had grown chubby, and he knew for a fact that he wasn't the only one wearing a cummerbund to hide the reality that the top button at his trousers' waistband was undone.
He thought about where their careers had led his classmates. Some were senior in their chosen fields here in Ireland. Others had made the pilgrimage back here from the United States or British Commonwealth countries. Fair play to them all. He hoped they were as contented as he, the principal of a general practice in the drowsy County Down village of Ballybucklebo, where season ran into season and little disturbed the harmony of life. He would be getting back to work on Monday, and as far as he knew, he'd not left anything that young Doctors Barry Laverty and Jennifer Bradley could not deal with.
He shook his head. Thirty years, the last twenty in Ballybucklebo-but his life had not been all peace and quiet since he had qualified as a doctor.
"Now wheest, the lot of you," Cromie said. "Wheest, and that includes you, Ronald Hercules Fitzpatrick."
The man in question, who, as had been his wont back in their student days, had barely uttered a peep all evening, at least managed a smile as laughter rang out. His gold-rimmed pince-nez shone and his large Adam's apple bobbed rapidly above a winged collar, one size too large, and a clip-on scarlet bow tie. His neck reminded O'Reilly of the grinning ostrich with a large lump halfway down its neck. The bird and its irate zookeeper, whose pint the animal had swallowed, glass and all, had been one of a number of classic posters advertising Guinness stout.
O'Reilly waited for the laughter to die.
Cromie said, "I hope you've all enjoyed your dinner as much as I have..."
O'Reilly patted his tummy. Gazpacho, sole almondine, iced champagne sorbet, beef Wellington, roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables, baked Alaska, and an assortment of cheeses and crackers had been complemented by chilled Pouilly Fumée, a Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and Taylor's port, 1941. He had declined the latter in favour of a glass of John Jameson's Irish whiskey. "Certainly was a nice snack," he whispered to Kitty, who made a mock frown and said, "Fingal, behave yourself."
"... and so we've to thank the other members of the organising committee. Gentlemen, please rise: Charlie Greer and Fingal O'Reilly."
O'Reilly stood and smiled at his other male tablemate. Charlie, now a senior neurosurgeon at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, was the man who had given O'Reilly his bent nose during a friendly boxing bout back in 1935. Together they had played rugby football for Ireland. Now Charlie had a comfortable potbelly and was an amateur, but internationally recognised, expert on the works of Mozart. His wife sat beside Cromie's. As girls, the two women had attended Cheltenham Ladies' College, a very exclusive school in England, an institution that aped the then-common boys' public schools' tradition of handing out nicknames. O'Reilly had known Mrs. Greer as "Pixie" and Mrs. Cromie as "Button" for so long he'd forgotten their real Christian names, if indeed he'd ever known them.
More cheers and a voice calling, "Looks like Tweedledum and Tweedledee to me."
O'Reilly caught a whiff of delicately scented tobacco from someone's cigar as he waited for quiet. Then he interrupted Cromie in a thick Northside Dublin accent. "Lord jasus, there's one in every crowd that wants to be the centre of attraction. If your man Edgar Redmond there was at a wake, he'd not be satisfied unless he was the feckin' corpse, would you, Edgar?"
O'Reilly nodded to himself. His old adage, "Never, never let the patient get the upper hand," was equally applicable to heckling colleagues.
"Thank you, Fingal, for those few kind words," Cromie said, "and to quote Michael Collins, who, upon returning to the same hustings whence he'd been arrested while making a political speech and subsequently jailed, remarked, 'As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted...'"
More laughter, and a voice saying, "Nice one, Sir Donald."
Cromie made a small bow. "Thank you, Sid. Now we of the self-appointed organising committee hope you enjoyed your meal. We are delighted that so many could attend. We'd particularly like to acknowledge Hilda Bronson, whom most of you will remember as Hilda Manwell. Now please hold your applause or we'll be here all night. Please stand, Hilda."
A petite, middle-aged woman, completely grey-haired, but still as trim-figured as ever, wearing a short, floral-patterned, satin evening frock with a flared skirt, rose and smiled all round the room.
"Hilda and her husband have come all the way from Sydney, Australia, to be here, and it was a letter from her last year to Charlie Greer that got the ball rolling for this get-together. Thank you, Hilda, on both counts." Cromie, ignoring his own instructions about applause, began to clap, and everyone joined in as she, O'Reilly, and Charlie regained their seats.
"Now," Cromie said, "tonight is not the time for speechifying, but there are a few housekeeping chores I must attend to. I'll keep it short. The bar here will remain open until eleven tonight. Breakfast is informal tomorrow so take your pick of the dining rooms in the hotel, but we must convene in the lobby by nine thirty. It's no distance to the college where it all began thirty years ago. We will walk there and have a series of lectures."
Fingal did not need to pay attention. Hadn't he helped the lads plan the whole weekend of reception and a dinner tonight, talks tomorrow morning, so expenses could be defrayed against taxes, luncheon with your friends to be arranged individually, a free afternoon, a formal dinner tomorrow evening in the college, and a farewell breakfast in a private room in Bewley's on Grafton Street on Sunday morning?
He closed his eyes and in an instant could see himself all those years ago, sitting through dull, dry, droning dissertations on anatomy and physiology, hours spent in the formalin-reeking dissecting room, histology laboratories, the drudgery of the preclinical years. The excitement of walking the wards, seeing and treating patients, knowing at last that he'd been right, that medicine had always been his destiny. Years lightened by fun in pubs-Davy Byrnes or the Bailey, both on Duke Street; the Stag's Head; Neary's on Chatham Street-rugby matches, boxing, dances in a floating ballroom; movies like The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy,Captain Blood, Top Hat; meeting a grey-eyed student nurse-he smiled at Kitty-and losing her because of his own stupidity.
O'Reilly heard Cromie say, "And our guest faculty member at the dinner tomorrow will be the surgeon Mister Nigel Kinnear, who taught us, saw distinguished war service before returning to teaching, and who next year will be installed as Regius Professor of Surgery."
Nigel Kinnear had supervised O'Reilly's trembling hands as he performed his first appendicectomy back then. And in those five years he'd laid the foundations to learning his trade and seen the growth of a lifelong friendship with Cromie and Charlie and-
"Mister Kinnear will give the first Bob Beresford Memorial Oration. Bob made the supreme sacrifice in 1943."
Bob Beresford, gentle gentleman, O'Reilly thought, and bowed his head.
What little subdued conversation there had been, died.
"I'd like us to rise and be silent for a minute in remembrance of Bob, Jean Winston, Archie O'Hare, and Phillip McNab, who sadly are no longer with us."
There was a scraping of chairs on the hardwood floor as everyone rose.
O'Reilly bowed his head. He'd known the other three, but Bob Beresford had been the fourth of the Four Musketeers. Dear Bob, probably the best friend Fingal had made in his life. He glanced at Kitty and saw how she was staring at him, concern in those grey-flecked-with-amber eyes. She'd known Bob, known him well, before the war, but it hadn't been until much later that both she and Fingal had learned of his death at the hands of the Japanese a year after the fall of Singapore where he had been serving in the Medical Corps in 1942. Bob had died looking after the sick and dying though mortally ill himself. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13. I miss you yet, Bob, O'Reilly thought, and felt a lump in his throat. He was grateful for Kitty's reassuring squeeze of his hand.
"Thank you," Cromie said, "and before you take your seats may I simply remark that I've finished the chores. I'd suggest that now the formal part of the evening is over, you all circulate and renew old acquaintances, but before that I'd like you all to raise your glasses and drink with me, 'To absent friends.'"
"Absent friends," came from the crowd as from one voice, none more heartfelt than Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly's.
Conversation and laughter began again slowly and then grew in volume. "I'll be damned. Sticky actually passed his speciality examinations?" he overheard someone say. "I don't believe you. Sticky...?"
It was a nickname O'Reilly knew was often given to Maguires in Ireland, just as Murphys were always called Spud.
"He was so dense we didn't think he could pass wind when we were students. He just managed to struggle through medical school."
O'Reilly chuckled, as did the storyteller's audience.
"He didn't just pass. He took a gold medal, was having a stellar career when the poor divil had a stroke. He survived but..."
"Aaah, that's sad," a woman's voice said.
Indeed it was, O'Reilly thought. Sticky had always been a great class jester, a kind man. Fate could be very unkind. He was aware of someone at his shoulder and found himself towering over Hilda Bronson. "Hilda. Lovely to see you. Hilda Bronson, meet Mrs. Kitty O'Reilly."
"It's plain Kitty," Kitty said.
Hilda grinned. "We met at the graduation dance all those years ago," she said. "I thought then you seemed much too good for a great lummox like Fingal O'Reilly."
O'Reilly chuckled. "You always did call a spade a bloody shovel, Hilda."
"Us few women had to among all you men," she said. "Now meet my other half, Peter Bronson."
O'Reilly was offered a paw as big as his own, and damn nearly as powerful, by a tanned man who said, "G'dye, mate," in an Ocker Aussie accent as thick as Kinky's champ.
"Bonzer meeting you. Hilda says you played a bit of rugger."
"Don't let those two get started, Kitty," Hilda said. "When he's not running a law practice, my Pete eats and breathes rugby football. Now the Greers and Cromies have moved on, why don't we sit with you two for a minute? My feet are killing me in these damned stilettoes."
The gentlemen held the chairs for the ladies, then joined them.
"If memory serves, you were to play for the Wallabies on their '39 tour of the UK and Ireland, but the bloody war got in the way," O'Reilly said.
"Huh," said Peter Bronson. "I joined the Royal Australian Air Force, flew Beaufighters, even though my new wife," he smiled at Hilda, "wasn't too pleased."
"I'm sure Kitty wasn't either about you in the navy, Fingal," Hilda said, nodding at O'Reilly's uniform.
Kitty, always the soul of tact, said, her voice quite level, "I'm afraid I'd gone off to nurse orphans in Tenerife during the Spanish Civil War when Fingal was called up..."
He knew there had been more to it than just nursing. Tenerife had left Kitty with a ghost, and one that must soon be confronted. O'Reilly tried to make light of it. "Careless of me letting her go, I know."
"Fingal and I didn't get married until last year." Kitty smiled at him. "He's a slow learner."
"But slow and steady wins the race," O'Reilly said. "I'm a very lucky man." And to hell with convention, he bent and kissed Kitty while in his heart he knew his first wife, Deirdre, looked on, smiling.
"Good for you, O'Reilly," Hilda said, then her voice softened, became wistful. "Pete never talks about the war."
"Neither does Fingal," Kitty said.
"But I reckon you had an exciting one, cobber," Pete said. His voice was level.
O'Reilly frowned. "Oh?"
Peter pointed to a blue, white, and blue medal ribbon on O'Reilly's jacket to the extreme right of the ones for the Africa Star, the Atlantic Star, the 1939-45 Star, and the War Medal. "No need to talk about it, but the Pommies didn't hand out Distinguished Service Crosses for collecting cigarette cards or winning the egg-and-spoon races." His glance fell on O'Reilly's rank insignia, then Peter held out his big hand, which O'Reilly took. "I'm proud to meet you, Commander O'Reilly. Very proud."
O'Reilly lowered his head, and while he should have been flattered, he could only nod while in his mind whirled pictures of those still-vivid war years, some memories faded to pallid shadows, others indelible, his for life.
And for all of them he had this old uniform with its little pieces of coloured ribbon to indicate where his bronze stars and a silver cross should hang. And, when he let them surface, memories, a host of memories, memories of a journey that had begun on a British battleship in Alexandria Harbour in late 1940. But those were not for tonight. Tonight was for fun, but-O'Reilly took a deep breath-Kitty wasn't alone in having a ghost from those years. His, like hers, would always be there.
Copyright © 2015 by Ballybucklebo Stories Corp