Phil Carrick was born and raised in Ireland in the 1950s, enjoying a childhood that saw her family live in various parts of, Offaly, Galway, Kildare, and Dublin. She was educated at both UCD and Trinity College Dublin and spent a full career as a Microbiologist in the Dublin Institute of Technology. Since raising her own family of three and retiring early in 2015, Phil has married for the second time, welcomed her first grandchild, and embraced her life-long ambition to publish her writing.
Phil’s first publication in creative writing was a short story in Irelands Own in 2006. More recently, her memoir (2019) and a short story (2020) were long-listed by Fish Publications, Cork. The poetry collection “2020 Visions” published by the Ballymun Library, Writers group, includes three of Phil’s poems.
The Night Visitor
By Phil Carrick
Dillonsfort Town 1979.
Tim wished his brother James would just end his friendship with Delores. It was not worth the strife and tension at home. The constant barrage from his father entered his ears and not James’ because he helped on the farm daily. James was away in Agriculture College during the week and socialised at weekends.
The accusations flowed: letting the family down after generations, mixing with the enemy, losing the farm to Catholics. If James continued this courtship, their grandchildren would be Catholic.
“It won’t do Tim; you must do something. I did not work this hard to lose it all to that lot.”
He watched his father’s face turn red with pressure and the tears well up in his eyes. Tim had listened to this tirade for months now. He finished work in the yard around nine one Friday evening and was crossing the hallway, still in his work overalls and tool belt, when there was a knock on the door. Delores, his brother’s girlfriend, stood smiling, expecting to enter. Without speaking, he grabbed a coat from the stand and pushed her out in front of himself. Consternation rose in her eyes as she resisted his efforts. He coaxed her down the laneway away from the front door, telling her James would be along in a moment. She consented to walk with him towards the wall of the graveyard opposite their farm entrance. He said they could sit and wait for James there. She refused to sit, and he wrapped his coat around her shoulders to calm her shivers. His father’s words rang in his ears, “You must do something, Tim, for all our sakes.”
There was a sudden cloudburst in the sky above their heads, and the rain pelted down angrily. Delores attempted to run towards the house. Tim reached for the long screwdriver in his belt. The deed was over in minutes. Holding her close in the wet and the cold, he felt her warm blood run through his fingers. He howled in dread and dropped to the ground with her limp body, his head buried in her shoulder.
My aunt Izzie is in her eighties and lives in the rural town of Dillonsfort, deep in the midlands of Ireland. She is my father’s younger and only sister. Izzie never married. She lived with her parents, an aunt, and a younger brother, and cared for them into their old age. She saw these relatives, including her younger brother, out of this world. Aunt Isabelle took a keen interest in the process of dying and the practices around death from an early age. She was taking after her mother and aunt; both women set themselves up in their community as carers for the sick and dying. They visited homes with a kit of white towels, white bed linen, lace-trimmed table covers, and white candles. They brought candlestick holders, brass candlesnuffers, and a prayer book bound in black leather. Families prepared the home of the sick person for the arrival of a priest to administer the sacraments. In the case of a death at home, they washed and dressed the body and then organised the wake. Friends and relatives of the deceased arrived to say their goodbyes and joined the family in refreshments and banter; a celebration of the life lived. In my teen years and indeed, up to my late twenties, I imagined my aunt’s preoccupation with the dead and dying to be a dreary and sad business. Getting to know her better in my adult years, I realise she is the ‘connector’ in our family. Izzie is now our oldest relative, and she connects past generations, living relatives and the expanding next generation. She is invaluable to me as I research the family tree on my father’s side; providing details about people, she knew. Her memories give personality and life to names on a page. In her late sixties, Izzie moved into a house beside the graveyard. She could not have been happier and continued her interactions with local people in their grief. In late autumn 1999, I went to visit my aunt to talk about the family tree and find out a bit more about her own life. I settled into the guest bedroom at the rear of the house. We sat down to a dinner of roast lamb, roast potatoes, and steamed vegetables, around seven-thirty, and caught up on the gossip. I asked Izzie to tell me how she became involved in caring for the sick and dying. Her initial response was: “Go way, Trish. You’ll be bored out of your mind.”
I laughed, everyone else in the family called me ‘Pattie’, but to Izzie, I was always Trish. I encouraged her to continue:
“I was just sixteen, would you believe! My first visit with my mother was to a small farm about two miles from town. It was early March, and a heavy frost had set in over the fields and roads. A neighbour dropped us both to the house. The woman of the house, Marion, stepped out to greet us and ushered us in from the cold. Her elderly mother was ‘on her death bed’. The door led directly into a kitchen area, and a man stepped out through a door on the right. He threw some last words to the occupant before closing the door gently. “There’s plenty of life in you yet, Ali. Don’t be codding us now.” Marion suggested I go in to see her mother directly because she was awake now and would require sleep soon enough. I entered the room and closed the door quietly. Approaching the bed, I saw that Alison had long strands of grey hair fanning out across her pillow.
“Halo Alison, I’m Isabella”
Within seconds, her face opened up, revealing sparkling blue eyes. Pale lips moved into a broad smile, lifting her skin upwards to display high cheekbones. Before speaking, she pointed to a small glass and water jug on the mantelpiece. Holding the glass steadily, I let the cold water moisten her lips, tongue, and throat. Alison lay back on her pillow, satisfied.
“You came with your mother. They said you might.”
I answered ‘Yes’ but was at a loss for more words to say. Alison began to talk freely and indicated for me to take a chair and sit down.
“Don’t mind what they say out there. I am off tonight. My Da is coming to collect me.”
I imagined that Alison was lost in a past memory or maybe raving a little, but she continued:
“He came to visit me last night. He sat on the bed here beside me, as sure as you are sitting here now.”
Her eyes were wild with delight.
“He said he would be back tonight and help me over.”
“Over” I queried.
“He spoke about a bridge, a silver ornate metal bridge, over a river. Told me to focus on getting to the centre of the bridge and then I would see him. Said he would reach out his hand and help me over.”
“That sounds strange Alison. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Course not! I heard people say to go to the light, but Da mentioned brightness and the bridge and said I must look ahead and not get distracted by the river below. He said there were lots of people waiting for me.”
She seemed bright and happy, but when the door opened behind me, and my mother entered, Alison winked at me, put her finger up to her lips, and mimed the word shush.
I left the room and went to the kitchen to help Marion prepare scones and sandwiches. Several times Marion joined my mother in Alison’s room. Darkness drew in about the house, and the kitchen filled up with visitors. Just after eleven o’clock, my mother opened the door to Alison’s room and invited the visitors to join her in saying the rosary. She said, “It is nearly time.”
People spilt into the room and knelt down on the floor. The door remained open and more people knelt in the kitchen area. In anticipation of Alison’s end, my thoughts filled with dread. I put on my coat and hat and stepped out into the farmyard. The shock of winter cold revived me. There were stone outbuildings opposite me with their slate rooves decorated in a thick layer of frost. Out on the roadway the light fall of snow on fields, and frost on hedges, created a beautiful Christmas card scene. I looked up into the sky and found a million stars shining back at me. My eyes tripped from one constellation to another, and suddenly one star fell from the sky. It dropped what seemed like a few feet down and then drifted off to my right; it’s light extinguishing. Instantly my heart filled with an unexpected delight. The door opened behind me, and a man stood beside me. He fiddled with a cigarette package until he got one lit. With one deep pull on the cigarette, he said:
“I know,” I replied.
You see Trish, and call me daft if you like, but I knew that was Alison saying goodbye to me. Death never upset me after that…
“That is a beautiful story, Izzie.”
We finished our evening with a few glasses of Port and headed to bed around one-thirty.
I woke up suddenly at two in the morning and heard my aunt clicking on light switches and making her way downstairs. There was a sense of hurry in her steps, so I pulled on my dressing gown and went to investigate.
“Izzie, what’s the matter…? Are you ok?”
” There’s been a knock at the door.”
” You’re not going to open it at this hour.”
” Ah sure, it is probably just a neighbour.”
” Wait! Let me look out the top window first.”
I stepped into Izzie’s bedroom and pulled the curtains back, leaving the light off. The night was pitch-black out, but in the soft gleam from the fanlight, I could see the back of a person dressed in a long coat standing near the door. It was a man’s coat with defined square shoulders but probably draped over a woman’s frame, judging by the loose fit of the garment. A long main of white hair swept over her shoulders and down the back. I joined Izzie at the foot of the stairs and whispered my findings. She seemed pleased that the visitor was likely female and proceeded to unlock the door. The house phone stood on a small table in the hallway, so I was ready to ring emergency should anything unusual occur.
“I’ll do the talking, Trish.”
My aunt was the only family member to call me Trish; to everyone else, I was Patty.
As the door opened inwards, the figure stepped backwards from the light and stood against the low Fuchsia hedge, about two yards away. Izzie stood in the doorway with me looking out over her shoulder. My aunt spoke first.
“Can I help you, dear?”
The sounds that came next alarmed me. It was not the speaking of, but the waling of words.
“Where is James? I need James.”
My aunt waited a few moments and replied,
“There is no James here, Pet.”
The woman let out a low groan that caused my stomach to grip itself, but my aunt seemed calm and stepped outside the door. The figure was in shadow and cringed further back into the hedge. Then Izzie looked towards me and asked if I would switch off the hall light as it was blinding her. I did as she asked and stood to hold the door open. Just outside her door, my aunt kept two iron seats and a small iron table; the location is a suntrap in summer. I could see the two chairs, one behind Izzie, and the second one leaning into the hedge by the visitor. The woman was whinging to herself and holding her coat closed. Izzie asked her to take the weight off her feet and pointed to the garden chair. The woman slid onto the nearby chair while Izzie sat herself down.
The coat this woman wore was old and creased but of good quality, and it reached below her calves. It was several sizes too big for its wearer. Her two legs and feet were bare and covered in dirt while her hands were not visible; somehow, she gripped the fabric from the inside. There was a strong smell of dampness in the air. Izzie’s composure impressed me as I listened to her words. She spoke quietly and used the terms Pet and Dear frequently.
“There is no James here Pet, but can I help you.”
The woman spoke again. “But I came to see him. He is my James.”
My aunt replied.
“He is certainly, dear, he is your James.”
“What is your own name, Miss?”
“Deli Finn, I’m Deli Finn from the town here. I live in Church Street. Oh! No!”
She became upset and cried:
“I can’t find my way. I am lost. No one knows where I am.” Her hair was long and tangled, and a dirty grey colour. She did not look directly at either of us but dropped her head forward, looking down into her lap. When she did raise her head slightly, most of her face was in shadow. A thin stretch of unwashed skin covered a sharply defined jawbone.
My aunt whispered to me to fetch some holy water and pass out her overcoat. I released the metal font that hung from a nail in the hallway and passed it to her. She sprinkled the water in the space between herself and this woman, and in my direction. The figure took no notice of this ritual and began to speak:
“I came to the house here to see James. His brother Tim came out to me. He said I should not go in for fear of the parents. He walked with me along the road and up by the graveyard wall.”
“Where does Tim live, dear?”
“On the farm beside the graveyard wall,”
“Tim walked with me, and he said everything would be fine, in time. That James was coming up to meet us later, and we should sit on the low wall by the end paddock and wait for him. I was freezing sitting there, shivering with cold and Tim gave me his coat.”
“Did your James come up, Pet?”
“No! I don’t know. I got sudden sharp pains in my chest and stomach. I was squealing with the pain. Tim said to be quiet and put his hand over my mouth, and I must have fainted.”
The woman was crying to herself and tugging at the fabric of her coat from the inside.
“I am awake a long time now, but nobody knows, and I can’t find James.”
My aunt, visibly shaken at Delis story, tried to offer comfort:
“Let me help you if I can.”
I whispered to Izzie:
“Do you want me to call the guards? They might be able to help.”
Izzie’s frown, and shake of the head, put an end to this idea. She continued talking calmly to the woman, offering to pray for her, that she might find rest. She told her that James was waiting for her and that she must wait too.
“You will be together in the end.” My aunt said.
The woman sat quietly for some time and then stood up from the chair, pulled the coat closer to her body, and turned to face the entrance gate. Izzie blessed her with the holy water again and said:
“God bless you.”
She was quiet now and walked away towards the graveyard without saying another word.
Izzie blessed herself and said:
“Let’s get back indoors, Trish.”
I replaced the holy water font on its nail and was anxious to hear Izzie’s thoughts. She directed me to a cupboard in the kitchen and said to get the bottle of brandy she kept there for when the parish priest called.
“Fetch two glasses and pour two good ones.” We sat at the kitchen table.
“Who was that Izzie?”
“It’s my first encounter since moving to this house. I was unprepared but, thank God; it worked out.”
” You are scaring me now. What do you mean encounter?”
” My late mother, and I, have witnessed and spoken to spirits from the hereafter.”
” Ghosts you mean. So that woman was a ghost.”
” A poor lost soul, I would say.”
” My God, I’m shaking, look at my knees going.”
” Drink up your brandy, its’ good for shock and cold.”
” Do you know the woman?”
” No! No! However, there is something about that name. Deli Finn, it slips off the tongue too easily.”
We were silent for a time, caressing our brandy glasses between both hands. Izzie broke the silence, saying:
“I was about fifteen when my father passed. His funeral was huge, him having lived in the town all his life. He died in January, and it was late in the evening by the time the hearse made it to the graveyard. It was dark, and I stayed on a few minutes by the graveside after everyone headed out to the gate.” She paused for a few minutes, likely thinking about her father, and continued:
“I loved my father dearly, and I was distorted with sadness, not knowing how to think. As I walked towards the graveyard entrance to leave, a man stepped out from behind a large stone cross. Something about him unsettled me, but I thought he was an old tramp from town latching on to the funeral crowd. He was swaying from side to side and trying to block my path. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and gravelly. He said:
“Come with me, girly.”
“I looked up into his face and froze to the spot. His eyeballs were orange-red like fire flames, and his teeth were bare like a snarling dog. I let out the loudest scream that ever left my lungs. My eyes pinched tight with the effort. Then there were hands on me, pulling me, hauling me, and I screamed still. Someone picked me up and carried me. I was terrified. Eventually, I heard my mother’s voice saying:
“You’re all right Izzie, we here, we here.”
They pleaded with me to open my eyes so I could recognise them.
“You must have been scared half to death, Izzie!”
“I was. There is no doubt. I stayed in bed for a week and did not want to leave the house. When I reached eighteen, my mother spoke to me about the spirits, how she dealt with them safely, and how to know the harmless ones from the more dangerous.”
I was fascinated with Izzie talk of spirits but also frightened by her revelations and could not return to bed until the light of dawn broke through the curtains. The next day my research at the library revealed the story of Dolores Finn. She went missing from Dillonsfort town one evening in 1979. She was supposed to meet her fiancé, James, that evening but did not arrive at his house. The newspapers mentioned that James’ parents were not happy about his friendship with Dolores. James belonged to a protestant farming family who held land in the town going back generations. Dolores was a catholic. The couple became engaged in secret and intended telling the family that evening. Twenty years on and the case of Deli Finn, a missing person, is still an active investigation.
I raised with my aunt the notion of speaking to the guards about our night visitor, but Izzie was very definite in her reply:
“The girl is dead, and anything we say will only add to the torment of those left behind. We run the risk of being considered oddballs and drawing publicity.”
“But what if her bones are lying up in that paddock, or the graveyard?”
“If her remains are to be found, the investigators will find them.”
I did not share my aunt’s views, but there was some truth in her opinions. I read of families plagued by so-called ‘psychics’ making claims that only added to their grief. Should I keep this story to myself?