It was a perfect spring day. A cloudless blue sky seemed endless above a world newly clothed in green. It was the day of Bernadette’s First Communion and for the occasion she wore a white dress and veil and white gloves. Uncle Conn and Auntie Sheila had bought her a missal with gold lettering embossed on the soft red covers and a rosary and her parents had bought her a silver cross and chain. After photographs had been taken outside the church Bernadette held her mother’s hand as they all walked towards the Clarence Hotel. Bernadette looked up to her mother and said, “I don’t feel any different Mum. Everything feels just the same.”
“You are in a state of grace now child,” her mother replied without looking at Bernadette’s upturned questioning eyes.
“But why don’t I feel different?” Bernadette said.
“You have been in a state of grace all through your preparation so you will feel no different today.
Away now and see your cousins,” her mother replied.
Bernadette let go of her mother’s hand and went ahead to join her brother Anthony and her cousins as Aunt Sheila came to walk alongside Bernadette’s mother.
“It’s a great day Annie,” Sheila said.
“It is,” said Annie, “It’s a great day all right.”
Back at the house Bernadette’s father Mikey said, “We don’t want to be all cooped up in the house when we can go along to The Clarence and sit outside in the garden.”
“I have everything ready here though Mikey,” Annie replied.
“We have all day for that. We shouldn’t waste the day. What do you say Conn?”
Conn shrugged his shoulders slightly, “It would do no harm I suppose and there’s space there for the children to play out.”
At The Clarence Hotel the children played on the lawn while the adults sat on benches and watched a game of bowls being played and made appreciative noises of approval or gave little sighs of disappointment, being careful all the while not to approve or commiserate too loudly. Periodically the children returned for more lemonade or crisps before dashing off again to resume their game. Then the children noticed a change of mood amongst the adults. The air of jollity had evaporated and Mikey was leaning back in the bench with his legs crossed and his arms folded and looking determinedly away from the rest of the group as he spoke.
“You seem to think Conn, that as a consequence of your studies, exposure to an idea entitles you to claim that you have that idea in your possession when the truth of the matter is that it is the idea that has taken possession of you,” Mikey said and he unfolded his arms picked up his glass and finishing his beer before returning the glass to the table and leaning back on the bench and folding his arms across his chest.
The children rolled their eyes and dashed off giggling.
“We shouldn’t be arguing on a day like this,” Annie said quietly.
“I’m not arguing at all. But just because an idea comes out of a book doesn’t make it right especially where it defies common sense,” Mikey said.
“The truth of the matter is Mikey that you resent Conn trying to better himself through getting a qualification,” Sheila said gazing down at the glass of ginger wine that she held before her.
“Indeed I do not. I resent no man,” Mikey said sharply.
Conn stood up holding his empty glass. “Let’s forget all about it. I only mentioned it as a matter of interest. Come on Mikey let me get you another drink,” he said. Mikey nodded his distracted assent. Sheila shifted uncomfortably on the bench as Conn made his way to the bar,
“I’ll just go and make sure the kids are behaving,” she announced. As soon as she was out of earshot Mikey leaned towards Annie.
“Don’t we all know that to a man dying of thirst it’s not the first drop of water that will provide the greatest satisfaction but the second and third and forth and so on until the point of satiety is arrived at? And it’s the same with the man dying of hunger. The first morsel of bread will not be the one that provides greatest satisfaction, it will be the cream bun he will eat when his life has been preserved. Whether we seek oblivion or enlightenment our habit is to consume until we can consume no more. I think Conn has this elasticity of demand theory round the wrong way and will not concede the point out of obduracy.”
“If he has what does it matter, he only brought up the matter as a bit of fun. If he has it misunderstood I don’t see that that is to the detriment of any one other than him.” Annie said.
Mikey drew in an enormous breath as though in preparation for the laborious work of explication that lay before him.
“He tries to elevate himself too high I think. The tension arises because I am able to demonstrate that common sense and the sweat on my brow are worth more than all of his theories put together.”
Conn came out of the lounge precariously carrying a tray of drinks and set this down on the table. “I’ll grant you one thing Mikey. The elasticity of demand theory takes no account of beer for the more of it we have the more we want while we’re able at least,”
Conn laughed as he passed the drinks around and Mikey sat back on the bench and folded his arms and fixed his gaze at on the sky with the air of a man vindicated.
“No more of your economic theories now Conn,” Sheila chided her husband as she rejoined the group and continued, “Didn’t Father Moran conduct a beautiful service? I felt the tears welling up in me when I watched Bernadette going down the aisle toward the altar. Didn’t she look a treat?” Which sentiment drew murmurs of agreement as glasses were raised to expectant lips?
Back at the house Mikey and Conn inspected the patch of ground that Mikey had set aside for a kitchen garden while Annie and Sheila laid out the sandwiches and salads on the back room table.
“I don’t have time for the garden this year what with the studying and all,” Conn said as he casually kicked a piece of newly turned soil.
“You’ ll be in with the big fellows before we know it,” Mikey said, “ I hear you’ re after applying to the Accounts Office for a job ”
“It’d be nice to come home with clean hands Mikey. You could do it yourself. It’s a big place and there are always opportunities.”
“I’m all right as I am clean hands or no,” Mikey said. “I’d be glad to help you out with the studying Mikey.”
“I’m all right as I am Conn,” Mikey said as he walked meditatively over the bare earth.
“We should go inside, the women are calling us.”
The adults sat around the table in the back room. It was laid out with ham, cheese, pork pie, cold beef, salads and thick slices of bread. Annie had set out the best rose patterned tea set that Mikey had brought home from the crock fair and there was orange pop for the children who came and went between the garden and the back room.
“Will you go back this year Mikey?” Sheila asked. “I will not for there’s nothing to go back for.”
“Still and all it’s nice to see the old place again.” Sheila said. “You think it is?” Mikey said.
“What about you Annie? Wouldn’t you love to go back,” Sheila said. Annie looked at her and smiled weakly but did not reply.
Mikey stood and said, “I have to go and have a look at that old bike of mine. It’s been playing me up and I don’t want to risk it letting me down on my way to work.” He went upstairs and changed out of his suit and into the old grey trousers and an old shirt that he used for gardening. Conn watched through the French windows as Mikey walked down the garden.
“He’s away into his shed,” Conn said to Sheila and Annie who were still seated at the table. Annie poured more tea and buttered a thick slice of white bread. I don’t know what’s got into him at all,” she said.
“It started when Conn said that the scriptures were not to be considered a literal account of events but rather as a kind of, oh God now what was it you said Conn? “ Sheila asked.
Conn shrugged dismissively, “I said they were allegorical, not to be taken as gospel,” Conn said and laughed as he lit a cigarette.
“You might as well have said they were made up of fairy stories, wouldn’t you think so Annie?” Sheila said.
“I find more sense in some of the things that Conn says than many of the other things I hear,” Annie replied.
“I’ll apologise if that’s the root of the trouble,” Conn suggested.
“The damage is done now Conn. It’s best say nothing to him at all. “Sheila said. “He can be contrary when he wants,” Annie said.
“It’s a pity perhaps that we ended up in the same town and in the same factory even,” Conn said dejectedly.
“But didn’t we all think at one time what a great thing it was that we should all be in the one place, and what else were we to do but go where the work is,” Annie said plaintively.
“And what would be more natural than brother and sister might want to be in the same place?” Conn said.
“He is your husband Annie and you must abide by him but I’ m afraid to say it that Mikey finds the presence of Conn and myself within the confines of his house an inconvenience. There’s nothing we can do to please him” Sheila said sombrely.
“Away with you, nothing of the sort at all,” Annie protested, “Come on now Sheila and take another slice of the fruit cake I made.”
“I’m sorry to say it Annie but I’m in agreement with Sheila that our presence here is not welcome to him.” Conn said.
They sat quietly as though a truth given its freedom through expression had found force and substance until Sheila broke the silence, “We may as well away. There’s work tomorrow I’ll gather up the kids.”
As Conn was putting on his jacket to leave Annie placed her hand on his arm. "He provides for us all that we need. He is a man who works hard.”
Conn sighed and then nodded. “There’s no man works harder Annie. We all know that.” Annie and Bernadette and Anthony stood in the front porch and waved as Conn and Sheila and their two children walked to the bus stop at the end of the road and then Mikey went back into the house and stood at the kitchen sink trying to remove oil from his hands, “The bike is jiggered altogether,” he announced, “It would have been the death of me.
It’s as well that I had a look at it,” and then as though a mere glancing aside he said “I take it then that our guests are gone?” to which Annie nodded, “It’s a good thing that they are,” Mikey continued, “ The audacity of some people is beyond me entirely. I think that they must have terrible ambition but that’s not something we have to suffer now and at least now we can watch the television in peace with the knowledge of it.” and he put the television on to watch Audie Murphy ride across the American west under a clear unbroken blue sky as Annie sat and whispered prayers to herself as though reciting inscriptions of sorrow inscribed upon her soul.
As summer passed Conn and Sheila did not come to Mikey’s house again. Sometimes Annie would take Bernadette and Anthony into the town to do some shopping and on the way back they would call into Conn and Sheila’s for a cup of tea and a chat. Nobody ever mentioned these visits to Mikey and all had sworn themselves to secrecy on the subject.
One Saturday afternoon Bernadette and Anthony were playing in the street when they saw their father walking towards them. As he approached he waved them inside and chastised them for being out front of the house instead of playing in the back garden and then in tones of exasperated anger he told Annie as she served dinner that the landlord of The Clarence Hotel had put up the price of his beer again.
“You might think that it’s the money that I’ m concerned with and if it was then that would be reason enough,” Mikey said as he tried to spear an elusive potato with his fork, “but it’s not all that I am concerned with. What concerns me, is the principle of the matter,” an assertion which immediately caused Annie to shift her gaze downwards. “It is, beyond all doubt that this measure is directed at our class of people and I ask you why any man should suffer such an affront to his dignity? “
“Isn’t the price of a drink much the same in one place as it is in another? If they put it up in one place won’t they put it up in another?”
“God damn it you’re quick enough to see the landlord’s point of view, “ Mikey said and threw the fork upon the dinner plate as he stood to leave the table and instead of going upstairs for a rest as he would normally do on Saturday afternoon he changed into his worn brown corduroy trousers and his black wellington boots and the Fair Isle sweater that Annie had knitted for him and which he had never liked and went into the garden to dig the patch of ground that he had allocated as the kitchen garden in the Spring but which had since that time lain untended. As he worked he took off the Fair Isle sweater and hung it upon the garden fence and in his shirtsleeves and braces, his face contorting with anger as he attacked the ground, raising the shovel with his right hand to the height of his temple and then thrusting it into the ground and then forcing it down further into the ground by the sole of his right boot upon the top edge of the blade. Annie watched him from the kitchen window and she quietly started to hum as she did as often as she went about her domestic chores and which now seemed a lament for the loss of the simple joys and pleasures of life. Bernadette entered the kitchen and stood silently listening as her mother hummed her lullabies.
“Mum,” Bernadette said at length “Why did the feud start? No one else has feuds, why do Uncle Conn and Dad have to have one?”
“The feud was always there, it was only a question of time before it should appear.” “But how did it start?”
“They were born into it without knowing it. It is their history and now it is their future. It started with the land.”
“The scrap of land your father was born into bordered our land. No one knows now what deeds were committed by those that came before us but their animosities are our inheritance. Your father’s land is lost. There is no land now.”
“Then why is there a feud?”
“Even though there is no longer land you can still feud over it.”
“But if there’s no land there can’t be a feud because you can’t have a feud about something that doesn’t exist.”
“It is a thing that confounds common sense. It is a thing beyond all understanding.” Annie moved away from the sink and started taking baking materials from the cupboard. “Come away child, let me get on now,” she said.
“Why do we have to pretend that we don’t go to see Uncle Conn and Auntie Sheila?” “We don’t pretend that we don’t go to see them. We just don’t mention that we have.” “Why?”
“Because I am wife to the one and sister to the other.” “I don’t understand . . . ” “It is like the land . . . ”
“But the land isn’t real. You are . . . ”
“I’m as real as the land,” she said as she measured out flour into the mixing bowl.
“Auntie Sheila said the feud was about a pram,” Bernadette said.
“Yes there was the pram as well. But that wasn’t the cause of the feud.”
“I wouldn’t let anyone carry bags of coal in my pram if I had one. I don’t blame them for not lending their pram to Dad.”
“I don’t blame them either. Nobody did. Only your father did.”
Bernadette’s mother knew for a month that Uncle Conn had got his promotion at the works. On the day that he took up his new job in the accounts office Mikey came home from work as usual and didn’t say anything about it and Annie thought that Mikey still didn’t know. When they were seated at the table Mikey suddenly stopped eating and drank some tea and leaned back on his chair and said, “Oh isn’t he the fine fellow now that brother of yours? There in his fineries, his collar and tie,” and he mimicked the act of buttoning up his shirt and tying a knot in his tie, and a smart new jacket,” and Mikey ran approving hands down his bare arms alternately, “and not a hair on his head out of place. Oh he’s the big fellow now all right but you’ d know all about it already wouldn’t you now? Hey? You hear what I’ m saying to you?”
“I hear you,” Annie said softly, her head bowed, her eyes averted.
“You think I wouldn’t know that you and the children have been scuttling away behind my back at every opportunity?” Mikey said as he rose from the table his voice loud and angry. “You thought you would keep it from me did you? Well I’m wise to your ways. You have no reason to be in that man’s house when I have forbidden it. ”
“You didn’t forbid it,” Annie said.
“Did I not? Well that was an oversight on my part that I’m correcting now. There’ ll be no more deceptions.”
“He’s my brother sure. And uncle to the children.”
“Uncle or brother makes no difference to me at all. I am your husband and you will obey me in this matter and the same goes for the children for as long as they live beneath my roof. You will abide by my adjuration and keep away from that house. Am I understood now?”
“I understand you all right,” Annie said quietly as she looked down at her hands folded in her lap as though she might be gazing into a distant world. Mikey put on his overcoat and went out and Annie stayed sitting in the back room and didn’t speak or didn’t look up for a long time until she finally got up and took the dinner things out to the kitchen and started the washing up.
“Can I help you Mum” Bernadette asked. “Let me give you my advice child.” “What is it?”
“Never to marry and always to be your own person and to have a good education.” “Why did you get married?”
“It was the way of things. We thought we could overcome things but instead they overcame
“If you hadn’t married you wouldn’t have had me or Anthony,”
Annie turned away from the table and took Bernadette in her arms, “Child you and your brother are my strength and you are my joy.”
Bernadette went upstairs to her bedroom and knelt in front of the little table with its statue of Mary Magdalene. She took her rosary out of the special rosary box she had received at her first communion and placed it around the base of the statue and then made the sign of the cross and asked God why she still didn’t feel any different and prayed that she would be in a state of grace soon.