Margaret Murray – Two short stories

margMargaret Murray has had plays produced by the Thomas Davis Irish Players of New York (“English Lords and Irish Ladies”) and she is currently working on other plays and stories. She was born in Trim, County Meath, Ireland, but migrated to the states at 18 years of age many years ago and currently she lives in upstate New York.

Babby Bushes’ Wake

By Margaret Murray

Tom Rafferty, the local postman of the town of Brugha, was leaning up against the wall of the bank waiting for the ten o’clock bus from Dublin, which was late as usual.  Tom was a tall, well-built man in his early fifties, whose great love in life was a good pint.  Tom had neither chick nor child, and many a poor, lonesome single woman in a moment of desperation would have considered him an enviable catch, for the in the town of Brugha the postman was someone of means. But God in his wisdom and mercy saw fit to leave Tom a bachelor all the days of his life.
Tom enjoyed his work.  As postman, there was little he didn’t know about the townspeople or their relatives, far and near.  Christmas Eve was his favorite delivery day.  It was then that every housewife in the town, feeling generous, especially if there were checks in the envelopes, would invite him in and give him a little something in the line of spirits, perhaps a simple pint of ale or a thimble-full of whiskey.  The only problem with this brand of  hospitality was that by evening the people at the far end of town who had not received their checks would have to go searching house-to-house for Tom and, when they found him–usually making a last-stand at O’Leary’s pub–sort through his mailbag themselves to retrieve their own mail while he sat at ease singing “Silent Night” to his hosts.  There were people who were depending of course on a relative in American to send a few dollars to help them through the holidays.  Eventually Tom would stagger home full of good cheer, his bag empty for another year.
When the ten o’clock bus finally arrived Tom stepped forward to take the mail.
There were only three envelopes.
One was unusually heavy and was addressed to the house of Babby Bushes.  The word had come to Brugha from England that Babby, a refined, quit-spoken and hardworking woman,  had died.  She had once been a long-time resident of the town and had a pension from the British Government.  Devoted to her cherished rose-garden—the most beautiful in Brugha–she had never once thought of herself as above anyone, and some even said that  her precious flowers took the place of a husband and children since no man had found anything in Babby remarkable or romantic enough to propose to her.
Once inside the Post Office Tom got the kettle steaming and, with little effort, steamed open the flap of the heavy envelope.  Inside was a card that read “Please bury Babby Bushes—Her Family.”
Now wasn’t that odd, Tom thought.  Please bury Babby.  Now what the hell kind of people did those English think they were anyways?  Of course they’d bury her.  What the feck else could they do with her—put her in a glass case in O’Leary’s?  After all,  Brugha always looked forward to a good wake.  It gave everyone a chance to dress in their finest Sunday suits and dresses and have a nice chat with folks they hadn’t seen in years.
But how the hell could they bury her when she was still in England?  Well, they’d bury her when she came home, and not a minute sooner.
Tom lifted the envelope gently and peeked inside.  He then saw the reason for the envelope’s weight—it was full of…ashes.
Now why would the Bushes be sending those ashes?
Perhaps it was to be placed around a favorite rose bush on the Babby’s grave when she arrived.  Where the body was, though, Tom, and everyone else in town, could only imagine.  He decided to ask Mr. Dooley, the town’s chemist, when he stopped by to deliver the post.
Mr. Dooley was a sensitive man who listened quietly and with genuine sympathy to the illnesses—real or imaged—of the people of Brugha.  Today, when Tom stopped by to deliver the mail, Mrs. McGuire was standing at the counter, talking to the chemist about her husband.
“Mr. Dooley, would you be ever so good as to give me some tablets for me husband,” said Mrs. McGuire.  “He just got back from a three-week stay in a Dublin hospital.  Afflicted with double vision his entire life.  And, ye know, he went into the hostile to have his hernia fixed.  But the operation did nuttin’ for his double vision.”
“We all have our crosses to bear,” bragged Mrs. Ryan, who was also waiting for the chemist but who was in not great hurry—she loved a good gossip.  “Take meself, for instance,” she said.  “I had a hernia that went astray on me.  I went to see that new foreign doctor, ye know the one that’s been here a week.  And he asked me was I coddin’ him or just plain ignorant.”
Mrs. Toomey was also waiting in the chemist’s shop.  Showing everyone her neck, she explained how she had had her “gillets” cut.  “Me doctor wanted to stop eatin’ so much.  But now all I can do is swallow a cup of black currant tea.”
But no sympathy came from the other shoppers.  They told her it was good enough for her, a woman her age trying to be thin.  She should be ashamed of herself.  A good corset was all she needed.
Tom listened with interest.  What he couldn’t get from steaming open envelopes he’d get from listening.  He stepped up to the counter, and mentioned the envelope with the ashes and how the Babby had not yet arrived from England.  He’d offer a bit of choice gossip himself.  He speculate that Protestants were a queer bunch; they had no way of knowing where they were going when they died.  He showed the chemist and the morning shoppers the envelope full of ashes.
“Glory be to the hand of God,” murmured Mrs. Maguire, “what will they be thinkin’ of next.  The likes of them, sendin’ a pound of ashes to the town and we with tons of it ourselves from the turf.”
The chemist examined the ashes carefully.  Then he informed the people that the ashes were in fact the remains of the Babby.  She had been cremated, he explained.  Her body had been placed in a crematorium–a kind of air-tight furnace that burned at very high degrees–and reduced to ashes.
The shoppers were horrified.
“Who would do such a shockin’ thing like that to Babby—burn her up, stuff her in an envelope and send her home!” they whispered to on another.  “Shockin’, sacrilegious pagans!  Why, that’s enough to put the heart crossways in ye.”
They all swore they would never set foot in England in case the same fate would befall them.  Babby, the poor soul, had gone to England in a brand new suite and new shoes and not wishin’ any harm to anyone and they had sent her back in an envelope!
“Well, God be between us and all harm, no decent Christian would touch that stuff.  It would be unlucky.  Better let Molly Moorehouse handle it,” advised Mrs. Ryan.
Trembling, Tom picked up the Babby’s remains and put them in his bag.  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he cried. “In all me years of deliverin’ the post I’ve delivered many a queer thing, but never a dead person.”
Feeling the need for a drink before he made his delivery, Tom headed for the pub.
“Is that yerself there, Tom?” asked McGalliard, the barman.  “Dirty feckin’ auld weather were havin’, isn’t it,” greeted the men already gathered.  “What bit of news do you have for us today?”
“Well,” said Tom, “it’s lashin’ rain out there.  And the Babby is home—came in on the ten o’clock bus this mornin’.”
“Is that a fact now?” asked McGalliard.  “So she didn’t die after all?”
“Oh, she’s dead all right,” answered Tom.  “Good and dead.”
He nervously fingered the envelope.
“I didn’t se the hearse pick up the coffin,” said the barman, “and I was watchin’ the bus unload.”
“It didn’t,” Tom replied.  “I picked her up meself.  She’s in me bag there on the counter.”
The barman knew the Raffertys had a long history of abusing the bottle and wondered if Tom had gone too far now and the drink had destroyed what little brains God had given him.
“Listen now, Tom,” he said, “and listen well.  Sure you’re a disgrace to yer religion, talkin’ like that.  We all know the Babby couldn’t fit in your bag.  Ain’t I always tellin’ ye to lay off the porter at least for a day or two?”
Tom took the envelope out of his bag and put it on the counter.  His hands were trembling.
“There she is now.  Yous all thought I was dodin’ yez, didn’t ye?  Well, they burned her up, they did!  Then put her in an envelope and posted her home.  Now what do yez have to say for yerselves?”
The men stared at the envelope, then quickly finished their drinks.  They slapped down their glasses on the counter, spilling some of their porter on the envelope containing Babby’s ashes.  “For the love of God man, have yous no respect for the dead? “ roared Tom.  “Sloppin’ porter all over poor auld Babby.  What kind of people are yous anyways?  A good woman like this, who never knew the taste of porter in her life and grew the most beautiful roses ever seen in Brugha or any wheres else for that matter.  Now look at her—she’s full of it!  Yer all so ignorant yous don’ know a lady when yous see one.”
The men scurried out of the pub, muttering to themselves that even a dead body wasn’t safe in the hands of the English.
“Well, that’s a fine how do you do,” said McGalliard, wiping the spoiled porter off the counter but avoiding the envelope.  “I don’t suppose ye could wake a heap of ashes.  Arrah, Tom, it just wouldn’t seem right or proper now, would it?”
Tom agreed.
“The cheek of them not sendin’ her home the way she lived, in good condition,” he mused.
Finishing his drink, he tucked the envelope in his bag and headed for the home of Molly Morehouse.  Molly was a very strong-willed woman who respected the opinions of no other person but herself.  And one graveyard was the same as another to her.
“Molly, would ye be ever doin’ me a great favor and bury Babby?” he asked politely as he handed her the envelope.  “Ye can see with yer own eyes what they done to her in England.”
Molly examined the envelope up and down.  “How common,” she said with disgust.  “How low-class to send her home by sixpenny mail.  You would have thought they would have spent a shilling and sent her registered air mail.”
“Ah, ye would indeed, missis, sure ye would,” agreed Tom.
“Here,” she said, “sprinkle the ashes over the Bushes’ family grave and say a prayer for her.  I am off to Dublin for the day.”
“Look, missis, a well traveled person like yerself would know more about these things than meself.  Sure I’m only the postman here, and I can’t go into that Protestant graveyard.  It would be a mortal sin for me.  You go do it yourself and good day to ye now.”  And with that, Tome hopped up on his bike and rode quickly away.
Later that day, and her way to Dublin, Molly Morehouse stopped by the Protestant cemetery just outside of town and sprinkled Babby among the roses, the most beautiful in all of Brugha.

 

A Candle for Barney

By Margaret Murray

“Remember also, O Lord, Your servant Barney O’Reilly who has gone before us with the sign of faith, and rest in the sleep of peace…”
Neil sat in a pew near the altar and watched the large candles as they flickered on each side of the coffin. As the priest intoned prayers for the dead, he remembered to pray for his Uncle Barney: “May Barney’s soul and all the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace. Amen.”

Barney O’Reilly was the handsomest man in the town of Brugha. Even Mrs. Malone, who only spoke well of the dead, sad that he could have passed for a film star, especially when he wore his new grey-flannel trousers, navy blazer and sued shoes that his brother, Bill, a policeman in Brooklyn, had sent him from America.
Barney had the best of everything—fishing poles, a rifle, even his own ferret, and he could snare rabbits and full fish out of the water like a magician. He wanted for nothing and, and if he ever did, a letter to his brother in America got it for him.
With his blond hair and deep blue eyes, he was the pride of the O’Reilly’s. He had a lovely tenor voice, and without ever having taken a piano lesson he could play any song hummed or sung to him. At age seventeen he made his acting debut, appearing on stage at the Brugha Town Hall in “Who Killed Cock Robin?”, a drama staged by a group of local townspeople. After seeing the play, Mrs. Malone, Brugha’s theater director for nearly forty-years,, remarked that Barney was a natural born actor, so talented that he could be on a stage at the Abbey. After that, Barney was given the lead in all of Brugha’s operettas and dramas, from Gilbert and Sullivan to The Merry Widow and, being a natural born actor, he loved every minute of it. Life was Barney O’Reilly’s oyster and the people of Brugha loved him for the many talents he had been born with.
On his twenty-first birthday he bought himself a motor bike, with a check he received from the Reader’s Digest, which has published a short story that he had written. To celebrate his new literary fame, he bought himself the fastest bike made. He loved speed and this one could fly.
When Brugha organized a fire department, it was Barney who drove the truck, flying around the small streets at breathtaking speeds. He had no fear, he was invincible, and it was a striking sight to see Barney racing by with his blond hair blowing in the wind like Adonis and waving to his fellow firemen as he flew past.
Six-year old Neil Morehouse was Barney’s favorite nephew. Having lived with his sister Molly and her family since his own mother’s death, Barney was Molly’s favorite brother. He was like an older brother to Neil, who was small and then and suffered from asthma. Unable to run or play as fast or hard as the other boys, Neil entertained himself playing with chestnuts. Barney had taught him how to pick the biggest and hardest nuts and to bring them home and dry them out in the range overnight, which made them very hard and not as fragile. When Barney was in the mood, he brought Neil fishing with him. They would sit together for hours waiting for the fish to bite; while they waited Barney taught Neil to sing Barney’s favorite son, “The Harp That Once thru Tara’s Halls.” Walking home with their catch through the green fields north of Brugha, they would stop and pick mushrooms–only the smallest buttons—and by pulling a long, threadlike fiber of flax and knotting the end, they would pierce the stem of the mushroom and make a chain.
Easter Monday dawned without a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect day for the running of the Irish Grand National Sweepstakes, and Fairyhouse race-course would be crowded. In the Moorehouse’s backyard, Barney O’Reilly cleaned and polished his super-charged 700 c.c. motorcycle. When the bike was ready and roaring, he walked into the kitchen, where Neil and his mother were eating their lunch. “Molly,” he said, “I’m leaving now. I want to get an early start for Fairyhouse. Mick Nolan gave me two sure winners.”
“I want to go with you to the races,” begged Neil. “Please bring me.”
“Fair enough, old son,” replied Barney. “You can ride pillion.”
“You can leave him where he is,” said Molly. “I was up all night with him coughing and wheezing.”
“But, Mom,” cried Neil, “Barney can stuff my jersey with cardboard, and that will keep the wind from cutting the chest off me.”
“Go and get the cardboard, old son,” ordered Barney. “I’ll fix it inside your jersey so that not so much as a breeze will bother that treasure chest of yours.”
“He’s not going, and that’s that,” snapped Molly. “I have no intentions of being awaken all night with him. And furthermore, I want you to get rid of that motorcycle. I worry every time you get up on it.”
“What can happen to me?” grinned Barney. “I’m a good driver.”
“That same cursed bike killed two other men. That’s why you got it so cheap. I don’t think it’s a lucky bike at all.”
“I don’t believe in pishtroges of witchcraft,” Barney answered Molly.
“You spend the day gathering chestnuts at the Chapel lawn, Neil, and tonight we’ll play a game.”
He was in great form as he flew home alone from Fairyhouse racecourse. Both his horses had won. The outside Mick Nolan had given him had surprised everyone and come in first and the thoroughbred in the last race had won also. As he approached a four-way intersection, feeling that he didn’t have a care in the world, he saw a car coming slowly from the right-hand side. For the first time since he had learned to drive, Barney slowed down. He would have made the crossing, but a donkey strolled across the read, and to avoid hitting it, Barney slowed the bike and in doing so struck the care from the side. His Adonis face was cut in two.
Because Barney was Neil’s mother’s favorite brother, the shock and suddenness of his death nearly did his sister in. The neighbor’s daily visits left her even worse off. Moaning and groaning, they would lament, “Poor Barney, only the good die young. Sure, he’s in heaven with his poor auld mother. Where else would one so young be?”
Neil knew his mother was not one of the “Ladies of the Church.” She always said she had moiré to do than nun/s work, and besides, she did not like the clergy. “They’re only interested in the rich,” she declared. But now she pondered the question “Where else would he be?” In her grief she wasn’t quite sure. Not believing in purgatory, she assumed he had gone straight to heaven. Now with this old one and old one coming every day, putting doubts into her head, she was not so sure that Barney had gone straight to heaven. She ordered Neil to go into the church every day after school, light a candle, and say three Hail Marys and one Our Father for the repose of Barney’s soul. He as to ask God to take Barney to heaven so that he would not have to suffer the pains of purgatory, if such a place existed.
Neil did as he was told. Every day after school he watched sadly as his friends raced out of class, their hobnailed boots clattering on the cobblestone walk that led to the big chestnut tree standing majestically alone at the foot of the church hill. Although he was miserable, he made his daily pilgrimage to the church, depositing his penny for a candle and saying his three Hail Marys and one Our Father. For two weeks Neil suffered. Finally getting up his courage, he asked his mother when Barney would be in heaven. With sorrow his mother answered, “When you light all the candles and say the prayers, then poor Barney will be in heaven.”
He missed Barney terribly. He was reminded of him every time he passed the big chestnut tree that produced chestnuts as big as apples. They were a young boy’s dream, and the first boy to reach the tree grabbed the chestnuts that had fallen throughout the day. Then these chestnuts were brought home, put into the oven at the side of the range, dried out and the next day with the skill of a carpenter a hole was driven in the center of each nut, a heavy cord was threaded through the middle, a knot at the end of the cord was secured, and the boy with the biggest chestnut would be challenged by the present champion. The object of the game was to determine which boy had the strongest chestnut. This was achieved by each boy holding his string up in the air and swinging the chestnuts together as fast as possible trying to crack or break his opponent’s chestnuts. The boy with the nut that did not break was the winner and would go on to challenge the other boys. No matter how fast Neil ran to the tree after leaving the church he was always late. The only chestnuts he could find were either the ones no wanted or those that Barney had saved for him.
Neil thought hard and long on his situation all that night and he reasoned that, at the rate he was going, lighting only one candle a day, neither he nor Barney would accomplish much that fall. Barney would still be in purgatory and Neil would get no worthwhile chestnuts.
Returning to the church the next day he looked at the dozens of candles in front of each altar. The middle altar had two full boxes. Saint Joseph’s had one box and Our Lady’s altar had a full box. Then, as if Barney had spoken to him, Neil discovered the solution to his problem. One by one, he carefully lifted the candles out of the boxes and put them in the candle holders, then lighted each one, first the candles on the middle altar and then Our Lady’s and, finally, Saint Joseph’s. Removing the candles that were left, Neil stuffed them into his pockets and galloped home. He felt that the weight of the world had been lifted from him.
His mother was making bread when he ran in the door. “Mom, I don’t have to go into the church and light a candle for Barney anymore,” he cried. “Barney is in heaven!”
His mother looked curiously at him. “He’s not quite there yet, Neil,” she said.
“Oh, but he is,” Neil exclaimed. “He’s there no today. I sent him there myself.”
“Now how did you do that?” his mother asked, surprised.
“I lit all of the candles in the church at one, and what I did not light I brought home. I have my pockets stuffed with them. And we can light them here and say the prayers.”
Neil held out a fistful of candles.
“Oh, my God,” his mother said. “Why did you do that? Why did you lit those candles, Neil, and bring home the rest?”
“So that I can get all the best chestnuts and play with the other lads,” Neil said, “and so Barney can go to heaven.”
He removed the remainder of the candles from his pockets and put them all on the table as his mother watched, horrified. Then, grabbing her coat from the coat rack, she threw the candles in her bag and ran to the church, dragging her son with her.
“I hope to God, Neil,” she said, “that the church is not on fire. You’re a terrible boy to do such a thing. You’re never to go near any candles again. I suppose I’ll have to pay for these. I won’t have a penny left for the week after I get through.”
Arriving at the church, Neil and his mother found the altars glowing. Their appearance had been transformed from the quiet flickerings of a few candles to a glittering, vivid festival of light reserved for only the greatest of ceremonies.
“It looks like Christmas,” Neil said, his eyes shining.
Molly stood, nearly speechless, her eyes gazing at the glowing candles.
“Well,’ Neil,” she said, “if Barney isn’t in heaven now, he never will be.”

 

 
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