Jamesie passed the envelope with his right hand, taking the plate with his left. The offering seemed less momentous when it was part of an exchange. It was a small manila envelope from the stash his father kept for doing up the wages on a Friday. His mother looked at it.
‘Da has a load of jobs on, he said to tell you.’
She said something he didn’t catch, and pushed it into the pocket of her skirt. Jamesie was relieved when she turned away and started sawing at a loaf of brown bread. He peeled the cling film back from the salad she had prepared for him. This had been their Sunday night tea when he was growing up; thick slices from that day’s roast- she always cooked too much for three - and vegetables from the greenhouse, taken in front of the television. After his father had gone to England, a mutation of it had begun to appear most evenings. Silvery ham and pale tomato, crinkle cut beetroot and bouncy cheese; a pie chart of grim convenience from Finan’s shop. There isn’t much point, she always said when she put it in front of him when there’s only the pair of us.
Jamesie’s mother stood at the range, hands clasped in front of her, and watched him eat. He answered questions he wasn’t sure she had asked. He found himself crafting the facts of his life in London into pleasant fictions. The squat in Kentish Town became a ground floor flat; a bit damp, but with a nice garden. Noel, the speed freak from Newry who slept in a tent in their sitting room because no one had the courage to ask him to leave, became a chatty fella from Carlingford. And Aisling White became this girl.
Aisling White had come to London for a long weekend when her exams finished. Jamesie knew her to see back home. She had seemed to just appear, all long legs and eyeliner, the year he left school, though she had been in Tobernault all along. He left for London and didn’t see her again until she found her way to a party in the squat. She came with a college friend who abandoned her for a psychobilly from Booterstown called Lorcan. Aisling had no key for the place she was staying in. Jamesie offered her a bed. He liked that she didn’t say no, just let the offer hang there, as if it was something she might consider some other time. They sat on the couch until after dawn, close enough for him to smell flowers and sour perry, too far for him to drop the hand without lunging at her. He put Fairy Liquid down the toilet to clean it, and pretended to have read the copy of Gravity’s Rainbow he had placed on the cistern. If she knew he was lying she didn’t say so. Early in the morning he walked her to the bus stop. She kissed him quickly on the cheek before climbing on.
‘Could you not have done that about five hours ago?’
‘I was worried you wouldn’t respect me in the morning.’ Most of her pale make-up had worn off and there were little granules of mascara under her eyes.
‘You’ve got rosy cheeks.’
‘Bastard.’ The pink deepened.
‘It’s quite fetching…in a Colleen Bawn kind of way.’
A few days later a postcard came, a Roy Lichenstein-style cartoon of an anxious looking couple talking in speech bubbles.
‘I could have made you so happy, Beryl,’ the man was saying.
‘But I don’t want to be happy, Trevor. I just want to be politically correct.’ Thanks, Aisling had written on the other side, you know what for. Noel from Newry had snatched it from Jamesie’s hand.
‘You must have gave her a good seeing to.’ Jamesie didn’t correct him. Her phone number and address were on the card, in print so tiny the words looked like a border around the stamp. He had noticed straight away, and wondered why she had made the writing so ridiculously small.
Jamesie’s mother flitted from sink to fridge to table, giving him tea in a cup and saucer, a queen cake from a packet. She took her own tea in her hand. When he was young, the three of them had sat at the table, his mother the last to take her seat, the teak chair with the missing spindle. The radio was always on. His mother stayed in the kitchen until after she had heard the sea area forecast, though they lived thirty miles from the coast. But as his father’s business slid away, so did the gentle intimacy of those meals. Iggy Doyle seemed to have no words for the taint of failure you could almost see on him, and took to bringing his plate to the sitting room. As Jamesie got older, he drew away from his mother too. Since he had gone to his father in London, contact with her was a weekly phone call and the odd visit.
‘Thanks,’ he said, and got up to put his dishes in the sink. Her hands were waiting to take them. He went into the sitting room. It was just as it always was, a small fire burning in the grate, a smell of Brasso from the milky residue on the coal scuttle. He lay on the couch and lit a cigarette. The television was on low, the six o’clock news. A reporter was standing in front of a Marian shrine, a grotto cut into a hillside surrounded by a low wall. Behind him hundreds had gathered, many kneeling, the hum of prayer loud enough to make him have to raise his voice to almost a shout.
‘Over twenty thousand people have visited Ballinaspittle already, amidst claims that a statue of the Blessed Virgin has been moving. At other locations across the country, similar events have been reported; in one village in County Mayo it has been claimed Our Lady is about to step off her pedestal and walk among the people. The Church has refused to comment.’
‘Nut jobs,’ Jamesie said.
‘They have faith. You shouldn’t sneer at a person’s faith.’ His mother was in the doorway. He didn’t know how long she had been there.
‘What are you on about? They’re saying a statue is moving. They’re mental.’
‘But it’s not just one saying it. Hundreds have seen it.’
‘Hundreds of them are mental, so.’
‘Some things cannot be explained,’ she said. The cannot sounded so quaint, so rural. As a child he had been ashamed of how she spoke, of the soft vowels and odd colloquialisms of the fishing port she came from.
‘Oh, do me a favour,’ he said, and heard at once how English he sounded, and suddenly felt for his mother. ‘Ah, whatever. They’re not doing any harm, I suppose.’
She perched lightly on the very edge of the settee and watched the rest of the bulletin. Jamesie flicked his cigarette butt into the fire and went upstairs for a shower. In London, his father specialised in kitchen and bathroom refits, loft conversions. It was hard to believe, looking at the faded rubber hose looped around the bath taps, the scuffed enamel. Jamesie thought of the en suite his father had recently installed in his digs; he had a room in a bay-fronted pre-war house in Belsize Park. Iggy did it for me, Mrs Feehily, the ‘bean an ti’ as his father liked to call her, had told Jamesie in her Cockney accent. She brought Jamesie upstairs to her bedroom, showed him the shell-shaped basin with gold taps, the bidet that she used for her feet, not... you know, she assured him, giggling. His father had stood and beamed awkwardly in front of the womb-like folds of Mrs Feehily’s floor length cerise curtains. He might speak to his father about ripping out this bathroom. His mother would never ask.
Jamesie went into his bedroom. His drawers had been lined with paper that smelled like lemon bonbons. They were almost empty. His mother had laundered all his things. She had watched the weather from the kitchen window for most of the day, and pegged and unpegged his clothes between showers. Most were still damp. The only shirt he could find to go out in was a thin paisley one he had bought in Camden Market.
‘I’m going down the town, mam,’ he called. She came out of the sitting room and stood on her tiptoes to give him a tight little hug and kiss. He felt a prickle, and when she pulled away he saw a whisker, sturdy and white, above her lip. It reminded him of his grandmother, a tiny woman with dementia, who screamed whenever she saw Jamesie, so that he had to be hidden from her when they visited.
‘Cut of you in that shirt, Doyler. You look like a bender.’
‘This from the man in the Dunnes Stores jumper.’ They slapped each other’s shoulders roughly.
‘You’re buying so, for that,’ Ginger said, an artfulness in his mooching that Jamesie had begun to notice in London. They had gone there together, to work for Jamesie’s father. Ginger hadn’t been able to keep it together, often turning up late, then one day not turning up at all. After eleven weeks of uncharacteristic patience, Iggy Doyle ran him off the job. Ginger stayed around the squat for a month, begging drink and food on the promise that he would repay what he owed when his dole came through. Instead, he went on the drink for three days, and when he returned to the squat skint, the others told Jamesie to get rid of him. There were no hard feelings, Ginger said. Jamesie wished there had been; he felt responsible for him now.
They were on their fourth pint when Aisling White came into the pub. She must have seen Jamesie, but went to the other end of the bar. She was wearing a blue satin dress, like something his mother would have worn in the sixties, under a tiny black cardigan, and fishnet tights with Doc Marten’s. Her dark hair was backcombed into a tatty beehive. Jamesie managed to finish his pint before he found himself behind her, waving a tenner over her shoulder at the barman.
‘I can buy my own.’
‘Good for you.’
‘You can buy me a drink, so. I’d love you to patronise me.’ He should have phoned her.
‘The postcard was cool. You should have given me your number, though.’ He couldn’t tell if she believed him. The tiny writing was inspired; they could both save face. ‘Come on. Buy me a drink.’
‘I can’t believe I’m doing this. What are you having?’
‘A large Black Russian. With two umbrellas.’ She ordered two pints of Guinness and took the cigarette from his mouth. She didn’t give it back. In the squat he had thought she was cute. Prickly and a bit earnest, but cute. Tonight he thought her so gorgeous he had to try not to stare. He took a long drink and began to turn away to wipe off the cream he could feel on his upper lip. She cupped her hand under his chin and swiped her thumb across his mouth from corner to corner. The action was efficient, motherly. He glanced over at Ginger, who was watching them. He raised his glass at him.
After closing time, they went outside. A metal shutter clattered against the window of Lowe’s Jewellers, as a weeping girl in pale stilettos reeled against it. Further up the town a tall man loped into the middle of the street and pissed along the length of the white line.
‘I’d forgotten what a shithole this place is.’
A decommissioned school bus was parked across the square, waiting to take people to Xanadu’s Nite Club twenty-three miles away. Instead of queuing to get on, people were passing the bus and moving in the direction of the church. Jamesie took Aisling’s hand as if he was bringing a small child across the road. She rolled her eyes but kept her hand in his. When they got to the other side he pulled her to him.
‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’
‘Original, aren’t you?’
‘Seriously. Why did the chicken cross the road?
‘To get away from your shit sense of humour.’
‘That was hurtful.’
‘Jesus. To get to the other side.’
‘To see Gregory Peck.’
She bit her lip to hold a smirk in. ‘Hilarious,’ she said.
By the railings, Sergeant Butler was standing against his squad car in the thick stance he normally adopted outside the Capri Grill at this time on a Saturday night. They went through the white gates. The pubs of Tobernault had emptied into the church grounds. Already, grease-darkened paper bags and cigarette butts littered tarmac and gravel. A fat man in a denim jacket was singing the Ave Maria in a loud whisper, while his friends fell to their knees and played air guitar. Jamesie led Aisling onto a sloping bank beside a bed of roses and sweet pea and scented stock. They had a side view of the heads bent in supplication in front of the statue, mouthing decade after decade of an insistent, fervid rosary. Our Lady stood firmly on her chipped alabaster feet, and didn’t look like she was going anywhere any time soon.
‘There is a sociological explanation for this.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Yup. This is an episode of collective behaviour.’
‘Mass fucking hysteria, you mean.’
‘That’s a bit harsh. They’re looking to her for meaning. Apparitions happen at a time of flux, of change.’
‘Did you learn that in bleedin’ college?’ He said it in a poor imitation of a Dublin accent and instantly regretted it. She shivered and he drew her close, rubbing her arm as if trying to warm her. She glanced up at him and he managed to hold her gaze for a moment before she turned away to look at the crowd. According to the Daily Express he had found on the Holyhead coach, it was a sign she had the upper hand. He slung his arm around her waist and stood slightly behind her.
There were already hundreds in the church grounds, more streaming through the gates. The rosary chanters struggled to compete with the loose voices and sudden laughter of those who had left the pub, and they raised their chins and voices. As their prayers grew louder, the drunks stopped talking to each other and began to whisper, shush, shush, shuttuptofuck.
‘I suppose herself’ll be on the move shortly,’ said Jamesie. He turned to look at Aisling. The beams of a couple of dozen torches were trained on the statue, bathing the pale, blue-clad figure in the whitest light. Aisling’s face seemed to luminesce in the reflected glow. Beyond her, even those who had been jeering moments before were falling to their knees, lowering their heads in devotion. Three or four hundred voices were saying the rosary now, wisps of their sour breath panting into the night.
‘Look, Jamesie. It’s kind of beautiful,’ she said. She smiled up at him, and as she did, he became aware of a sweet scent that seemed to be all around them.
‘What’s that smell?’
‘What are you on about?’
‘You. Your smell.’
‘Can you not get it?’ His head was filling up with flowers. He must be plastered.
‘L’Air du Temps.’
‘Say it again.’
‘L’Air du Temps. My perfume. It’s French’
‘You speak French?’
‘Mais oui. I got an Honour in it.’ She turned and tilted her face to his. He kissed her. The sweet burn of the Southern Comfort shot he had made her drink was there, and the fug of the cigarettes she had taken out of his mouth every time he lit one. The flower scent was there too, lilies and gardenias and lavender and violets, and it deepened until his head was light. The prayers seemed to have the divinity of madrigals sung in a monastery. Just for a moment, as Jamesie Doyle kissed Aisling White, he felt an overwhelming joy.
But she was drawing away from him, then, had taken her fingertips from his cheeks. She pressed his hands in hers. The crowd had become quiet, and he felt a hand on his arm; another voice was speaking to him, Jamesie, look, it was saying. And Jamesie looked, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to be looking at so he looked at Aisling White, whose face had begun to crease with something that looked like concern.
In front of the grotto, a slight figure in the front row was rising to her feet. She was reaching towards the statue, both arms outstretched, as if trying to touch it. Please forgive us, our lady, we beseech you Blessed Mother, Queen of the Angels, Hail Holy Queen, she urged. Her hands traced the movements of the vision in front of her, movements only she could see. There was a tautness, an ardour in her, that seemed utterly familiar, but Jamesie didn’t know why. The woman sank back to her knees and bent forward, overcome. The voices around her rose up again.
‘Jamesie. Come on, man.’ It was Ginger. ‘Look.’ Jamesie looked, and those near him, at the edge of the crowd slowly turned to look at Jamesie. Most wore expressions of curious sympathy. Others were smiling, full of porter-fuelled amusement. All watched the slow dawning on Jamesie Doyle that his mother was leading the apparition.
His own hand was still in Aisling’s. For a second he thought he would pull it away and flee. His mother had cracked up, but she hadn’t done it quietly; she was falling asunder in front of the whole town. Aisling would think the madness was catching, and that he was a freak too. He wanted to get away from her, to save her the embarrassment of telling him she didn’t think it would work out. But her hand was still in his, she had tightened her grip.
‘Your poor ould one. It’s that prick of a da of yours.’ Ginger was looking at him, the start of a sneer, in the curl of his lip.
‘What are you on about?’
‘He has her like that.’
‘He had to go to England for work.’
‘My bollix. You must be the only one who doesn’t know he’s been riding that Feehily one the last two years.’ Two years? His father had been in England for three. Jamesie had stayed in Mrs Feehily’s house for a few weeks when he first went over. She had four or five lodgers at the time, Irish men in their middle years accustomed to the ministrations of a wife, to clean shirts and hot dinners. And there was a Mr Feehily, Jamesie had met him. Not recently, but he had met him.
Ginger watched him figure it out. ‘The husband’s long gone. And the other lodgers. There’s no one there except your Da.’
Jamesie thought about the Sunday lunches in Mrs Feehily’s, the three of them sitting around her table, his father pouring Asti Spumante into gold rimmed glasses with his big hands and serving her first… chin chin Gloria. And New Year’s Eve, when his father had already gone back to London. Jamesie had gone to the pub and left his mother sitting beside the Christmas tree that was beginning to smell like piss, with half the fairy lights on the blink. And earlier that evening. He remembered now what she had said when he gave her the envelope filled with cash. He didn’t even write my name.
‘Somebody had to tell you, man. He’s making a cunt of you.’ Jamesie gave him a swift slap. Aisling tugged him back.
‘Ignore him. Your mother, Jamesie. You need to go to your mother.’ He didn’t want to go to his mother. He wanted to go somewhere with Aisling White, anywhere away from here, and put his mouth against hers and smell flowers and sit up all night listening to her talking about post-Marxist theories of education and Georgia O Keefe and Bilko.
‘I can’t fucking deal with this.’
‘Well, you can’t leave her there.’
Aisling was leading him away then, leaving Ginger Mangan rubbing at his face and telling Sergeant Butler he wouldn’t press charges because Jamesie was his best mate. They were going down the bank and away from the rose bed and through the crowd. When they got to the front, Jamesie just stood there. He didn’t know what to say. Aisling was looking at him.
‘Talk to her.’
‘Mam,’ he said. She didn’t seem to have heard. Aisling nudged him.
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ His mother was kneeling on the ground, slumped forward, sobbing and he didn’t know what to do. Aisling crouched in front of her.
‘Mrs Doyle?’ His mother looked up. Jamesie watched her take in the fine bones of Aisling’s face, the slender reach of her hands, her blue dress the colour of the gown on the statue behind her. Maybe she could even smell flowers.
‘It’s okay, Mrs Doyle,’ said Aisling White. She took the hand of his wisp of a mother and walked her away from the grotto, Jamesie a step behind them. At the white gates, he turned and looked back at the blue clad statue in front of the crowd, the mumbling of the prayer starting again.
‘Jesus, Jamesie. Would you ever come on?’ said Aisling White. He lit a cigarette and put it in her mouth.
‘Save you robbing me again.’
He took his mother’s hand and started to walk up the street. He turned to Aisling, to take her hand too, but she was gone. He would have to root around in his bag later for the postcard. Try to read her ridiculous, tiny writing.