Neil Donnelly is author of stage plays: ‘Upstarts,’ ‘The Silver Dollar Boys’, ‘Chalk Farm Blues’, ‘The Duty Master’, .and radio plays: ‘Rotunda Blue,’ King of the Blues’, (Both BBC) ‘The Darkest Hour’, ‘The Loop’ (Both RTE). Donnelly is author of poetry collection ’Tullamore Train’. (published in 2011). He was Writer-in-Residence in Mayo in 1993/94, Writer-in-Association, Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1995.
Curator on ‘The Comenius Borders and Bridges’ Creative writing project, Treviso, Italy, 2010. He produced ‘Stories for the Ear’ – 60 short stories recorded on cd. A series celebrating Kildare writers. Commissioned by Kildare Co. Council. Produced and devised, ‘Athlone Suite, New York Sweeter? A music and poetry celebration of the poet Desmond Egan. He is film producer and director of ’Where would you like the Bullet?’ a film about Aidan Higgins (1927 – 2015)
By Neil Donnelly
Orla Maher had been in the bathroom a long time and even if Kate Hogan
banged on the door with her fist and shouted Orla mightn’t hear, lost as she
was singing at the top of her voice – You’ll remember me when the west wind
moves among the fields of barley. Kate was twenty-two, Orla thirty-four.
They shared quarters at Bunratty Castle in Co Clare where they were
employed to sing and play for the tourist season, which would continue well
into October. It was Saturday night and they had already performed once that
evening at the early sitting. There had been a rest period but now it was time
to freshen up for the late evening banquet. What was taking Orla so long?
She’d been in there ages. Kate took another deep breath and with her fist
hovering a few seconds finally knocked hard on the door.
“Nearly finished, come on in,” Orla shouted from inside.
Kate opened the door. Steam floated out. Orla stood with a foot on the
edge of the bath shaving her left leg.
“Oh sorry, I’m intruding,” Kate said about to back out.
“You’re letting in the cold. Come in and close that door”
Kate did so. Orla went on singing. In his arms she fell as her hair
came down among the fields of gold. Orla’s naked back was to her and her
black wet hair hung like rat’s tails about the nape of her neck. Kate stepped around her and reached into the cabinet for her toothbrush.
“Sting had five million mislaid by an Accountant and he didn’t even
miss it,” Orla said.
“I don’t know Sting’s version.”
“Eva Cassidy’s version is better by far. How’re we doin for time?”
Orla threw the razor in the wastebasket, grabbed an eyeliner stick, and
wiped steam from the mirror.
“I look a fright,” she said.
“No, you don’t.”
“Tonight means too dammed much to me. I look shite!”
She flung the eyeliner stick into the wastebasket after the razor.
“I don’t know why the hell I turned Patrick James down the first time,
I must have been out of my bloody mind. His family owns a whole network
of Car Showrooms all over Long Island. He virtually, well he did get down
on one knee actually, and proposed; sort of. I was too cool. I was being too
clever. I should have just gone for it.”
Kate was leaning away from Orla, clearing the bath of the stray black
“So, all is not lost then.” Kate said meekly.
“All is not lost. He was quite sweet on the phone from Ballyhaunis. I
apologized; said my first reaction was one of panic. The idea of me moving lock, stock and barrel to Long Island had at first freaked me out. It’s what I wanted of course but I just panicked. He said he’s going to ask again and I am to pretend it is the first time, to disregard all that has gone before. Such a gentleman.”
Orla smeared on a bright red lipstick and checked her mouth in the
“I won’t make a mess of it again. I’m putting my shitty nerves in a
locked box and from now on I’m going all out. I want to leave this Bunratty
pantomime behind for good and ever.”
Orla stepped back from the mirror.
“I don’t have a big cleavage but I have killer legs, don’t I?”
“Thank you very much Kate.”
“Yes, yes!” Orla shouted and left the bathroom.
Why does she go on and on about it. All right, her legs are her best
feature. Kate had straight legs without the muscle curves Orla had. Orla does have great legs. Okay. Fact. Fact. So what! Kate locked the door, took off
her dressing gown and while showering the thought struck that the long
medieval gowns the girls wore covered their legs and thus did not show
them off to advantage and while Orla used pads to give herself a cleavage
uplift, Kate didn’t’t need to. But once the final Medieval Banquet was over
the gowns could be discarded and then into night time clothes where Orla
could show off these pins. Kate was from a Cavan farming background. Her
father was very pleased when she got the Bunratty job. He had seen it as a
great accomplishment whereas Kate was like her mother, more realistic,
seeing it as a seasonal job, prestigious yes, but only the start of a singing
career and not the pinnacle. Kate had been encouraged in her music studies
and a huge harp had been purchased at an auction in Clones. On the evening
they dropped Kate and the harp at Bunratty, Kate’s mother presented Orla
with a large home baked cake. Orla was originally from Dublin and had
been a Bunratty harpist for almost ten years. Many harpists had used the
glamorous job as a stepping-stone; many had gone on to be part of the
myriad Irish music groups touring the world, which had proliferated in
the wake of Flatley and Riverdance. Others merely wanted to attract a
wealthy prospective husband. Kate and Orla shared a two bedroom
apartment: a lounge/kitchen and a bathroom; each had their own room.
Kate had changed some things. There was a withered old Venus flytrap on
its last legs which she had put in the dustbin, along with a plastic picture of a
black and white Cocker Spaniel which had hung in the window for such a
long time that it had been bleached white by the sun. And then there was the
Bermuda Triangle, an old battered sofa that collapsed in the middle when
anyone sat there. Kate had the management replace it, another thing that
irritated Orla who liked it the way it was. Orla was a smoker and was
considerate to Kate and always went outside to puff when Kate was there,
though sometimes when Kate had been away it was clear Orla hadn’t bothered to step out. For both of them lately it was a case of grin and bear it. Kate was dressed and ready and checked herself in the mirror and thought that she had got too much sun earlier in the day, as her forehead was still very pink. She had fair skin and it was a curse in summer. When she came out of her room she saw that the front door was open and Orla was outside talking with Maureen Finnerty. Maureen was forty-four and a great beauty in her youth having almost won the Rose of Tralee, or so Orla said. Maureen seemed distressed. Kate couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Maureen went away. Orla came back in and shut the door.
“Finno’s up to ninety.”
“Beauty’s gone, beauty’s gone! that woman is completely cracked. I
haven’t got time to look for Beauty.”
“Beauty is Maureen Finnerty’s dog. Haven’t you seen him? He’s that
three legged black and white collie that hangs about the place sometimes.”
“Yes, he’s a bit cross.”
“Maureen rescued him from the Dog Pound. He’s always wandering
off, sometimes he‘s gone for weeks, and then he’ll be back a few days then
gone again. He’d eat the hand off ya, if ya weren’t careful.”
Orla finished off the glass of water, which Kate knew, always had vodka in it.
At the medieval banquet the guests assembled around the long oak tables and drank mead from goblets served by the ‘Ladies of the Castle.’ Kate kept an eye out for Patrick James and whatever special attention Orla might pay him but Orla didn’t’t seem to pay particular attention to any of the men and was in effect the complete professional. So, Orla’s man remained a mystery. The eleven harpists played and sang their recital. Maureen Finnerty had two solos, Orla had one. Kate didn’t have any; perhaps later in the season she might get her chance. The recital ended; there was long applause then the Harpists filed out of the building. They were laughing and relieved it was over for yet another week. Now there’d be different wind down parties. Maureen Finnerty was beside Kate.
“I need a favour.”
“What is it?”
“If you’ve got five minutes, I think I know where Beauty might be,
could you come with me to help find him?”
They hoisted their medieval costumes from the tarmac in case they
might trip as they went across the car park and climbed the fence into the
cornfield. Maureen flicked on a pocket torch and illuminated two large
“This is where Beauty sits.”
Maureen trained the torch up and down the bank.
“Beauty, Beauty, Beauty!” Maureen called.
They listened for the sound of the dog scampering through the corn
towards them but what they heard were American and English voices, car
doors being banged shut, engines revving in the car park.
“You stay here while I go around to that far side.” Maureen said and went off along the edge of the cornfield. Kate watched the bobbing light from the torch until it disappeared. Maureen had been gone for what seemed a long time. Kate was getting cold. A light drizzle began to sift. Kate had had enough. She climbed back over the fence and when she reached the apartment she found Orla was sitting on the step outside smoking and
talking intently on her mobile. Orla had changed into a black dress and
her feet were encased in the highest red high heels. Orla did not look up or
move aside to let Kate pass. Inside Kate showered, slipped on her yellow
dress and green coat and when she came out of the apartment the rain
was falling heavily but Orla had gone. Kate assumed she was with
Patrick James and the repeat proposal was now well under way and a new life in Long Island was beckoning to. Kate walked out onto the road and
was heading to Durty Nelly’s pub when a car pulled up fast alongside with
its window down and ‘Pink Martini’ blaring on the CD player. Maureen
Finnerty at the wheel of her maroon Skoda.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Kate blurted out, “But I was cold and it was
starting to rain. Did you find Beauty?”
“Get in, we’re going to a Party!”
Kate got into the passenger seat. Maureen had changed into a blue dress and gold earrings in the shape of mini harps dangled from her ears. She seemed a totally different person to the anxious one of thirty-minutes ago looking for her missing three-legged dog.
“Any sightings of Orla?” Maureen asked as she drove fast away from
Durty Nelly’s and out the road towards Ennis.
“She was deep in conversation on her mobile.”
“Queen of low self-esteem, that’s Orla.”
“All these men mad about her, but there’s always some other man
in her imagination she’s having a relationship with. Too picky.”
“She’s meeting an American.”
“Transatlantic relationships are dodgy. Been there. Worn the tee shirt
“The American seems keen.”
“Tango takes two.”
“That’s elevating it.” Maureen beeped the car horn twice though there was nothing on the road.
“Having no brothers and being the eldest, my mother wanted me to
stay and work the farm in Oughterard and one day be a bloody farmer’s
wife. To have the life she had. My poor father took to the bottle to escape her. I escaped here. It’s a job for a few years only, that’s what I kept telling
myself. Time is getting on. I’m not panicking yet, though I’m just past forty.
Kids and a nice house and all that, yeah yeah. There was a Science Lecturer
in Galway. I wouldn’t do anything too kinky. I let it peter out. There was a
Priest or two. Relationships with clerics are safe enough. There’s usually
gentleness and a bit of spirituality but they get a bit too needy. Glorified
Mammy’s boys. Easy to get rid of. Accuse them of breaking their chastity vows. They back off. That’s the cut-off point. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this.”
“Things to avoid, that’s all. Oh, here we are!”
Maureen pulled in off the main road and went up a winding tar
macadam drive to a large house with many cars awkwardly parked.
“Ye’ll be called on to sing a song or two.” A small grey-haired woman
in a white apron said as she opened the front door to them.
“That’s alright, after all we are singers,” Maureen laughed.
The party was being held in a house rented out for the summer. Orla
wasn’t there, away with Patrick James, Kate assumed. Maureen Finnerty
played piano and the Americans, English and Irish audience, talked,
shouted and sometimes sang along. Maureen drank quite a lot of wine and at
one stage while playing the piano she stood up, kicked away the stool and
danced and played standing up. Kate righted the piano stool but Maureen kicked it away again. People applauded, and cheered.
“You’re Orla’s flat mate.” Kate heard an American male voice to her
right and she turned to see a round-faced man of medium height with dark
brown wavy hair combed to one side. She knew it was Patrick James but he
was not at all what she had expected from hearing Orla speak about him.
She had pictured a tall George Clooney type, not this soft pudgy-face.
“Is Orla here?” Kate blurted.
“Not on the premises, we had a falling out,” he smiled.
“Oh.” Kate looked nervously about, and repeated the “Oh.”
She felt awkward, self-conscious. Maureen had replaced the stool at
the piano and now sat on it and had begun to play the opening chords of
Fields of Gold.
“Sting had five million mislaid by an accountant and he didn’t even
miss it,” Kate blurted out.
Patrick James smiled his pudgy smile and it was clear he hadn’t a
clue what Kate was talking about. Or perhaps he had already heard that same
information from Orla and was even less interested in it a second time.
“It’s Car Showrooms, isn’t it?” Kate said to cover up the awkwardness.
“Cars, yes.” he smiled and took her hand.
She didn’t pull it away. He was holding it lightly, gently.
“There was a Lion who was getting old and he could no longer obtain
his food by force so he decided that he must resort to trickery” Patrick James
began and again that pudgy smile. “So, the Lion retired to a cave and
pretended to be ill. Then whenever any animals came to visit him, the Lion
ate them. When many animals disappeared, a Fox figured out what was
happening. He went up but stood at a safe distance from the cave and
called out to the Lion and asked him how he was. Oh, not very well, said
the Lion. Why don’t you come in? The Fox shook his head. I would come
inside if I hadn’t seen that a lot of the footprints are pointing inwards
towards your cave but none are pointing out.” Patrick James kissed the back
of Kate’s hand and released it, then got up and went down the hallway and
was gone; just as silently as he had appeared.
It was around 3.am when Maureen Finnerty drove herself and Kate back to Bunratty. Maureen was a bit drunk but there was no traffic and she drove steadily. They arrived at the Apartments and Maureen parked awkwardly on the corner, as usual. Kate feared that the search for Beauty might be resumed but she was relieved when the subject didn’t arise. She slipped quickly out of the car and went across the courtyard. She dreaded the thought of meeting Orla. She decided that she wouldn’t say anything about the meeting with Patrick James and nothing of his strange tale of the Lion and the Fox. The Apartment was in darkness. With any luck Orla would be asleep. She opened the door quietly. A strong smell of cigarette smoke met her. A dog gave a sharp bark.
“Don’t turn on the light!
A faint beam from the courtyard light was shining in at the window and
Kate could make out Orla sitting on the settee stroking a dog’s head.
“Oh, you’ve found Beauty!”
“Beauty’s found me.”
“Will I take her over to Maureen?”
“Finno can wait ‘til tomorrow.”
“I’m a bit pissed.”
“Really?” Kate said automatically.
“Beauty is a lonely dog,” Orla kissed the top of the dog’s head.
Kate went into her room and lay on the bed and felt terrible about not
being able to tell Orla the truth. But then again what was the truth? There
was just an illustration of a fable. No explanation. Though it might be a