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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. Nuala 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 call 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 MacCorkle, 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 close to O'Reilly at the back of a small group of formally dressed folks. Donal Donnelly stood at the far end of the room. He had changed out of his morning coat into a suit of dark blue worsted serge. His carroty hair was slicked down with Brylcreem. He was grinning widely, his buck-teeth shining in the light from a cut-glass chandelier. A large glass of orange juice was in one hand, and he made broad gestures with the other, swaying quite markedly as if the gale outside was affecting only him in the warm and draughtless room.
Barry laughed and whispered to O'Reilly, "The groom's looking well."
"Huh. He should be. He was half stocious at the altar, and he's been topping off his orange juice with gin."
"Donal? I know he likes his jar but—"
"Sure can't we give him a fool's pardon for today? It's not every day he gets married."
"I'm not going to lose any sleep over it." Barry took a look at the wedding guests who stood round the room. All had glasses of soft drinks in hand. All had their backs to Barry. The atmosphere was redolent of pipe tobacco. The wedding had been a small affair, and only the happy couple and the invitees were here at the reception.
Barry saw Julie, the bride, in her going-away outfit, a neatly tailored cream suit over a maroon silk blouse. She looked well recovered from the miscarriage of three months ago. Her cornsilk hair was bright and shone to match the gleam in her green eyes. She was, as it was believed to be the duty of every bride, looking lovely. She was paying no attention to Donal but was engrossed in conversation with her maid of honour, Helen Hewitt, whose red hair was tied back with a green ribbon. Helen wore a matching green jacket and short skirt above a pair of wickedly high stilettos that accentuated her shapely legs. He was pleased to see she had not had any recurrence of the eczema behind her knees, and wondered for a moment if she was still seeing his best friend, Jack Mills.
O'Reilly bent closer and muttered to Barry, " ‘Two girls in silk kimonos . . . ' "
" ‘Both beautiful, one a gazelle.' William Butler Yeats, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz.' " Barry seemed to have been playing this dueling quotations game with O'Reilly since that day he'd arrived back in July. "One a gazelle," he repeated, and for a moment his thoughts strayed to another beautiful young woman, but Patricia Spence was in Cambridge, had been there since September studying civil engineering. He wished she wasn't, but she'd be coming home soon for Christmas. Barry was counting the days.
His daydreaming was interrupted by the sound of Donal's voice carrying above the otherwise muted conversations. "Anyway, Willy, there's your man explaining to Mrs. Murphy that her husband has drowned in a vat of Guinness . . ."
Donal stood with one arm around the shoulder of his best man, Willy Dunleavy, landlord of the Black Swan pub in Ballybucklebo. It was hard to tell if Willy, who was shifting from foot to foot, was uncomfortable in his morning suit or with Donal's obviously more than happy state. Donal had originally wanted Seamus Galvin, the man O'Reilly had hurled into the rosebushes, to stand up for him, but Seamus and his wife, Maureen, and their infant son, Barry Fingal, the first baby Barry had delivered in Ballybucklebo, were now in California.
Barry saw Willy glance at an older couple sitting in chairs at the front of the room, and he guessed they were Julie's parents down from Rasharkin in County Antrim. By the look of her mother, who now had grey among the gold, Barry could tell where Julie had got her gorgeous hair. Julie's father was hunched forward, taking short breaths and scowling at his new son-in-law. The Pioneers took their abstinence very seriously. Willy must have noticed. "Wheest now, Donal." He smiled nervously at the elder MacAteers.
Oblivious to his friend's efforts at being tactful, Donal continued in a contrived stage Dublin accent, " ‘Jasus,' says Mrs. Murphy. ‘Drownded is it? In Guinness? Did he suffer?' "
"Wheest now, Donal."
Unabashed, Donal delivered the punchline. " ‘Not at all, dear,' says your man." Donal took a prolonged count before announcing, " ‘He got out three times to take a piss.' " He guffawed loudly.
Barry had difficulty controlling his own laughter. He noticed a second older couple sitting beside the first. The man was as buck-toothed as Donal. Barry guessed he was Donal's da, and judging by the way he was guffawing, he might have had something fortifying in his orange juice too. Beside him the older MacAteer sat more rigidly and, in Barry's opinion, was feeling, like Queen Victoria, distinctly not amused.
Ignoring his new father-in-law, Donal bowed to the audience, clearly relishing being the centre of attention. Then he straightened and noticed Barry. He strode over, hiccupped, and said, "How's about ye, Doc?"
"Sorry I missed the service, Donal." Barry shook the outstretched hand.
"Never worry. Better late than never. I'm sure you'd someone to see to." He stepped back. "Come on now, you with me," he hiccupped, "and say hello to Julie."
"I'd like that, Donal."
Donal giggled. "It's Missus Donnelly now to you, Doc, so it is."
Barry followed a weaving Donal past the others, acknowledging their greetings as he passed. Finally the two men reached where Julie stood. "Julie," he said, "you're looking lovely. I'm sorry I missed—"
"Thank you, Doctor Laverty. No apologies needed." She smiled at him.
"Are you not . . . hic . . . are not going for to . . . hic . . . kiss the bride?" Donal gave Barry a shove, and he found himself just that bit too close to Julie. He laughed and took a step back. "Easy, Donal."
"Well, if you're not going to, I bloody well am." O'Reilly now stood at Barry's shoulder. "Come here, me darlin' girl." O'Reilly stretched out one big hand, took Julie's, and pulled her to him. Even in her high heels, the top of her head barely reached the big man's shoulder. He wrapped her in a bear hug and gracefully kissed the very crown of her head. "I wish," he said, and his words were solemn, "for both of you, long life, good health, prosperity, an always stocked larder, a full crib, and may your praties never know the blight."