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J U L Y  1 9 9 9

Fiction From Mutton Island

Lyle had no more been to the Famine graves in Connemara than he'd been to Padraic's bar by the docks. He'd spent no grief on leaving his own sons an ocean away, and he'd not even done his Easter duty after the boys were grown

by Beth Lordan

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Galway YES, of course, even if it's raining," Mary Sullivan said. "But you must tell me the train, Jimmy." The noise of the bar he was calling from, across the Atlantic, was as clear as if he were here in Galway, as clear as Lyle's heavy steps coming down the stairs. Some cloud moved on, and a rare brilliance lay across the breakfast things.

"I don't know which train," Jimmy said. "He'll just call you from Dublin, okay?"

"That's fine, then. Will you speak to your dad?"

"I'm out of money, here, Mam. Tell him hi for me. Thanks again." And he was gone.

The sunshine faded, flashed again, and disappeared for the day. Lyle would make a fuss, and Jimmy himself wasn't coming. She'd not seen him in the year since Lyle had retired and they had come here to live. She had never imagined she'd miss Jimmy so, this steady yearning like a wedge in her chest. And now, on the telephone, he'd said "Mam," let slip his baby name for her (hadn't he?), startling after years of his American "Mom," and she held it.

Discuss this story in Post & Riposte.

More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Man With the Lapdog," by Beth Lordan (February, 1999)
"He heard his wife lifting herself from the bath water, and he knew that when she came out she'd get into bed beside him, damp in a way he'd once found so erotic that it nearly choked him."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Facts & Fiction: "An Odd Thing About Small Towns," (February, 1999)
An interview with Beth Lordan.

"How much does he want?" Lyle said.

"He didn't ask for money," she said. She turned the bacon in the pan. "He's the promise of a job, he said, with a landscaping concern."

"Landscaping." He pulled out his chair and sat down. "He called collect in the middle of the night to say he might have a job mowing lawns?"

"He didn't call collect." She lifted the bacon and eggs onto the plate and put it on the table between his fisted hands. "He sent you his love."

"Like hell he did," Lyle said. He began eating.

She poured his coffee and fixed her own plate, but she didn't want to let it hang too long between them, so when she sat down, she said, "He's a friend coming over."

He kept eating, so she said, "He thought we might show him about."

"I bet he did," Lyle said. "I just bet he did. What else did he think? That we sit around over here with nothing else to do, waiting to show his friends around?"

"It won't be so much," she said, watching her own fork cut into an egg. "Only a few days, and he'll be off to Belfast for the rest of his holiday."

"Belfast! Is he nuts?"

"He's studying something in Irish history. It'll only be a few days he's here." She spread jam on her toast. Lyle would get used to the idea; he had fussed the same way when his niece came over, the summer before, and then he'd been lovely once she was there.

"He's not staying here," Lyle declared.

"We've the room," she said, which they did. She had insisted that they buy a house with a second bedroom and bathroom, so that the boys could visit. She didn't say anything more, but just waited while he wiped his mouth and left the table, while he put on his coat and hat.

"Not that it makes any damned difference what I think, but when does this all happen?"

"Friday."

"This Friday?"

She nodded.

"That's a hell of a lot of notice -- two days." He opened the door. "I suppose this guy thinks he's Irish."

"He may think what he likes," she said, and stood. "With the name of Gilbert Monaghan, I'd think he'd some connection."

AFTER thirty years with Lyle she wasn't surprised when he came back from the shop with the newspaper and said that Gilbert Monaghan sounded Protestant to him, and snorted when she said she'd enjoy having a young one to cook for again, and grumbled about the expense they'd have when she bought a bit extra in the way of food. But she was surprised and pleased when, after lunch on Friday, he said, "You ought to make him walk out to Mutton Island," and passed her the newspaper folded to a piece called FINAL WALK PLANNED. The piece explained that the tides were rarely but predictably so extreme that one might walk on dry land to the island, almost a mile out in Galway Bay. This Sunday the walk would be possible, for the last time before construction began on the sewage-treatment plant to be built there.

Mary had a faint memory of a narrow spiral of stone steps inside the abandoned lighthouse. "I might have gone once as a girl," she said, and then, vividly, she remembered the wind as she stood with her sister Róisín on a wall, wishing mermaids from the far water. And a woman -- her mother? Aunt Nora? -- scolding. A magic thing, an island was.

"Bunch of protesters this time, probably," Lyle said.

Being American, he hadn't joined the long quarrel between people who wanted to save the island and people who wanted the plant, but he'd said more than once that no American city the size of Galway would be allowed to pump its raw sewage into the river and canals, where it would be carried out to sea.

And she'd replied that Galway wasn't an American city, praise be to God, and was growing by leaps and bounds, was a different city entirely from the Galway she'd grown up in, and poor as they'd been for so long, it was no wonder they'd not tended the plumbing -- but she supposed he was right. When the canals got low in the summer, the smell was foul. It couldn't be healthful. Still, it was a pity about the lighthouse, and the pretty island itself.

"Maybe not," she said. "There's a magic to it, I'd say." She tried to imagine Gilbert Monaghan seeing the magic. "We might take him," she said.

"We?" Lyle said. "You got a mouse in your pocket?"

"You might try it," she said. "It's not so far."

He turned the page.

"Gilbert Monaghan and I, then," she said, smiling, and though he didn't smile, he answered the telephone when the boy rang, and was civil.

"Seven forty-five," he reported when he came back to the table. "Is any coffee left in there?"

Mary lifted the pot and nodded. "Could you tell what he's like at all?"

"No," he said, holding out his cup for her to pour. "He was polite. That's enough." And he took his cup back, added sugar, and picked up his part of the newspaper again.

THEY walked to the train station through a light rain that misted Mary's glasses, so when the boy stepped down from the train wearing a green high school athletic jacket, she saw her son. It was only a moment, a leap in her heart, a flash of light -- Gilbert Monaghan indeed! when it was Jimmy himself come! But in that moment trembled the food she would fix, the talk they would have, the plans they would make. She could feel already his cropped hair (whatever was the boy thinking, all his pretty hair cut to stubble that way!) against her palm; she was already shaping the scolding she'd laugh him home with.

"That's the jacket," Lyle said, and raised his hand. The boy came walking through the crowd in a way that wasn't Jimmy's way, and the jacket changed and became a nylon pullover, so Mary already knew. Still, something in her mind kept on adjusting for these things -- Couldn't Lyle for once be glad to see the boy? And whatever did he have in that knapsack that made him walk so? -- until the very moment that Gilbert Monaghan himself, with three earrings in one ear and the edge of a tattoo showing on the side of his neck, stood before them and introduced himself. Even then, even as she was smiling and saying "Fáilte -- that's Irish for welcome," her hand wanted to touch his face, to be sure.

But the moment was brief. By the light in her kitchen she saw that he looked like Jimmy only in his lanky height and his blue eyes. Still, coming from the same part of the country, he had some of Jimmy's ways of talking, and she tried to warm to him. "You'll be hungry, I'd think," she said.

"A little," he said, blushing. "But I could just have some bread or something -- I don't want to put you to any trouble."

Mary laughed. "No trouble at all -- I like feeding boys. The bathroom's down the hall, and I've some cold supper all ready. Do you like smoked salmon?"

"Oh -- uh, well, I'm vegetarian," he said, touching an earring, "but it's no big deal -- "

So she was glad she'd made a nice egg mayonnaise, too, and she said, "Our Jimmy gave up meat for a time, but he'd still have the fish -- it's grand food, Irish salmon. Go on and wash up," she said, "and I'll have the tea by the time you're back. You'll be dead for sleep, too, I'd think, with that long trip."

She did have the tea ready, and the plate of biscuits (she'd bought extra, so she had a nice selection, and a few sweets as well, knowing how boys were) waiting on the counter when Gilbert came back down the hall and he and Lyle sat at the table. "There, then," she said, taking her own place, and Gilbert unfolded his napkin on his lap and said, "It looks great, Mrs. Sullivan," and took some slaw and salad and a slice of bread.

"So, Gilbert," Lyle said, "you grew up in the Midwest?"

Gilbert said he had, that his parents had a large farm, and that he had two younger brothers and a married sister.

"And you're in college now," Lyle said.

"Yes, sir -- I'll finish next May. I'm doing an interdisciplinary major in postcolonial studies."

"Hmp," Lyle said, but his mouth was full of salmon, so it was hard to tell what he meant. Lyle was fond of smoked salmon.

"It's a postgraduate course, I'd think?" Mary said.

Gilbert shook his head. "Undergraduate," he said, "but I'll be applying to grad school next year. Could I have some more of that bread, please?"

"You could of course," Mary said, passing the plate. "It's good bread, isn't it? I get it from An Caca Milis, on Abbeygate. They do all the whole-grain natural things there, breads and cakes and biscuits. They sell at the market, too. Will I take you to the market tomorrow? It's lovely, it is, all the stalls of crafts and fresh foods, and someone playing music."

"It sounds great," he said.

"She's got plans for you," Lyle said. "That's how she is. Tomorrow the market, Sunday the walk to Mutton Island. Last summer, when my niece came over from Chicago, she wore the girl out -- of course, she was here longer than you'll be." He looked over at the plate of biscuits. "Is there more tea?" he said.

"There is," Mary said. Gilbert hadn't touched the egg mayonnaise, and she thought he must be one of those strict vegetarians, and wondered how she'd feed him. She said, "Will you have another cup, Gilbert, and some biscuits?" and then corrected herself. "Cookies, they are. It's a word I've trouble remembering to change, even with my own boys. I was talking with Kevin, our older son, just a bit ago, and I said, 'What kind of biscuit was it you liked so in primary school?' and he said, 'Biscuit?' and I said, 'Oh, cookie,' and then he said it was the fig bars. He was mad for them all the time he was growing up. But it made me a little sad so, remembering how American my boys are, never having eaten the biscuits of my childhood. They wouldn't know a Jaffa cake from a Jersey creme."

Gilbert grinned and let her pour him more tea and take away his plate. "I wouldn't either," he said. "It sounds as hard as keeping the RUC and the UVF and the UUP and the IRA all straight."

"Not so hard once you've tasted them," Mary said. "This is the Jersey creme," pointing, "and this is the Jaffa cake."

He took one of each, still smiling.

"How is Jimmy?" Mary said.

"Oh, he's great," Gilbert said.

"Is he working?" Lyle said.

Gilbert looked blank.

"He said he'd word of something," Mary said. "With landscaping?"

"Oh, yeah -- yeah, he said that. It'll be great, you know, working outdoors again. It's been a heavy winter. Yeah, I think he said he'd probably be starting this week." His face tensed, stifling a yawn.

"So you're studying politics," Lyle said.

"In a way -- I mean, kind of real broadly, trying to see how the political situation got so -- so, well, sort of insoluble."

"They let it go on too long," Lyle said. "It could have been stopped years ago."

Gilbert nodded, but Mary could see, again, his mouth holding in a yawn, so she said, "Time enough for politics tomorrow -- the boy's dead for sleep. Will you take him up and show him how the shower works?"

A bit later, both of them in bed in the dark, Lyle said, "Could be worse," and Mary said, "He's grand," and then, after a time, "I wonder, does he eat cheese at all?" But by then Lyle was asleep.

Continued...

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.


Beth Lordan is the director of the creative-writing program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her first collection of stories, And Both Shall Row, was published last fall.

Illustration by Derek Biddulph.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; From Mutton Island - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 74-80.