Author and playwright, still in his thirties, JOHN D. STEWART derates his leisure time to writing and his working days to the British civil service. For the past nine years he has been stationed at Gibraltar, where he wrote his memorable article “ Vulture Country,” published in the ATLANTIC last year. But this lighthearted story of Irish shenan igans belongs to a mistier clime.
BY JOHN D. STEWART
JANUARY,a lot of years ago, and a night like black glass: ice splintering and crackling under the tires, and no other sound; the soft purring of the engine had long since ceased to be a sound. Nothing to be seen beyond the blade of light dancing on the gray road and the bare silver trees trimming it. Then the doctor saw a red spark far away ii front and a distant flicker of black-andwhite barrier poles.
“Customs,” he said gently, shifting his left shoulder to waken his wife. She groaned and nestled deeper in the rugs. He dropped his heavy gloved hand from the wheel to her knee. “Wake up, girl. They’re after your new Shetland twin set and your Yankee lingerie.” She struggled upright as the car crunched to rest beside the customs hut.
“Tell them you’re a doctor, Denis,” she said. “Tell them you’re a doctor in a hurry.”
“Ah, no.”said he. smiling and shaking his head over her, “that I cannot say.”
He reached across and turned down the window at her side. A lamp appeared; above it, dimly, a cap with a shiny peak and a golden harp; below the peak, a red and serious face tufted with sandy eyebrows.
“Good night to you,” said the doctor.
“Good night, sir. Your papers, please. Where are youse bound for?”
“Are youse normally resident in Belfast?”
“We are. Here’s my triptyquc and all that goes with it. Isn’t it a crying shame, (he trouble this border gives Irishmen to travel about their own country?”
“Och, it throws a bit of employment,” said the customs man. “I can’t complain of it, myself. Youse are normally resident in Belfast” —he was scanning the documents. “Just up to Dublin, likely, for a bit of a holiday, doctor?”
“To visit friends,” said the doctor. “Just a bit of a weekend to visit friends and relations and renew old acquaintances.”
“Ah, surely. And this lady, now — she will be the wife?”
“She is,”said the doctor; although she may look more like a daughter, he thought. The customs man thought so, too, for he hesitated for a fraction of a second. But he did not so much as twitch the lamp to throw more light on her face.
“Surely. Did you make any purchases now, ma’am, when you were in Dublin? Did you do any shopping now, as is customary, or purchase any new or dutiable article? Have you anything to declare?”
“No,” she said. “Er, nothing, really — a few minor purchases.”
“Ah. And what would you be considering a minor purchase, ma’am? Would you tell me that?”
“Oh, some chocolates.” The rugs opened, and a large, half-empty box appeared.
“Ship’s stores,” said the doctor, heartily. “Ship’s stores for the crew’s own personal consumption on the voyage. Same as this here.”
“Liquor, now. I was about to inquire about that.”
“Opened,” said the doctor, holding the bottle up to the light. “Opened and part consumed.”
“I’d be afraid that would hardly do, doctor. Sure, a man might bring sixty bottles up to me here, and the whole lot of them opened and a drop taken out of each one. How would that be?”
“That would be ridiculous. But I have just one. I always carry a drop, in my profession.”
“Ah, but you wouldn’t call this a medicinal quantity, would vou now? A noggin or so, maybe, for an emergency or the like of that. But a pint, now, doctor — that’s a festivity, surely.”
“Some people in this country need more than a noggin,” the doctor said, smiling, to provide himself with retreat. “They have what you might call a tolerance to it.”
“You’re a great joker, doctor, but whisky’s whisky, and the law takes a serious view—”
“Och, man, if you never see anything bigger than that.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to confisc ,tc it, doctor. My orders is —”
“I’ll question it, sir, with all the good will and respect in the world.”
“You’d question it, would you, now, doctor? Would youse come into the office a moment, both, and discuss that with the superintendent? Bring in all youse have with youse in the car.”
“Tch, tch, tch!” said the doctor. “The lady’ll, get her death of cold.”
“I’m sorry to have to cause you any inconvenience, ma’am.”
The customs officer flashed his torch around inside the car after she got out and took two small parcels from the pocket in the dashboard. Then he strode to the hut door, opened it, and stood back. The doctor and his wife went inside. They stood blinking in the golden light of an oil lamp and gasped the dry heat, the gripping smell of coke, the heavy scent of plug tobacco, and the odor of scorched cloth. A very big man sat on a tilted chair with his feet up, warming his buttocks over a very small stove.
“Good evening, now,” said the big man, rising, gathering up his features, scowling slightly at his subordinate.
“The doctor here has a bottle of whisky on him and disputes confiscation.”
“Doctor? Ah, he does? You do, doctor? See here, now, the regulations —” He led them over to a wide notice pasted on the wall. “Look here, now.” He ran his finger down columns of print. “Whisky!” he said triumphantly. “Here it is.”
“I declared it,” said the doctor, “and I’m willing to pay the duty on it.”
“You can’t pay the duty on anything after five thirty, doctor. Preventive officers are only empowered to collect duty in certain specified circumstances. You wouldn’t be having an export form by any chance?”
“Not at all, man dear. An export form for a bottle of whisky! What the devil is this country coming to?”
“Well, then, doctor, I’m afraid I must ask you to surrender the bottle.”
“See here, now, superintendent, it’s part consumed. It couldn’t be resold like that, so it’s not export.”
“Aha!” The big man laughed. “You wouldn’t like me to give you a lecture on medicine.”
“It’s for consumption on the road,” the doctor insisted. “Bona fide, an ancient traveler’s privilege. Would you take a packet of sandwiches off us because they were buttered with Free State butter?”
“Sandwiches is different — necessary sustenance. Sure, you know right well, doctor, a man in your profession, that it would be illegal, almost, for you to drink a bottle of whisky on the road, and you driving that big motorcar along in the frost.”
“Not necessarily. I might be a three-bottle man, for all you know. And couldn’t my wife here be responsible for a drop of it?”
“I love it,” she said, and she smiled at the superintendent. Her face was flushed with sleep and the warmth of the hut; her hair hung over her face, and her eyes were gleaming in the lamplight. The big man smiled back at her. The doctor looked from one to the other and smiled to see them smiling; articles more serious than whisky lay undeclared in the parcels on the table.
“I’ll tell you what,” the doctor said. “We’ll share it out amongst the four of us, here and now, and settle the argument.”
“There is no argument. You can’t argue with the law of the land,” said the big man, but he had hesitated. She smiled at him again. “Whose land is it?” she asked. “Who lives in it?”
“It’s against all regulations,” said the superintendent. “Against all the customs regulations as laid down in —”
“There are older customs than those in this country,” she said.
“Is there a cup about the place, Sean?” the big man threw over his shoulder. But his junior was on his way back from the cupboard with four. “Keep a lookout on the road, Sean, while I entertain the doctor and his lady.
“We have an inspector in this district without a laugh in his whole body. Born in a frost and slewed in a thaw. Him and a lady searcher, a pair. They wouldn’t give you fresh air — and that’s the only thing plentiful in Ireland.”
“That and sociability,” said the doctor, uncorking. “Would there be a drop of hot water, now, to embellish the whisky with?”
“Right here,” said the big man, stepping nimbly to the stove. “It’ll be hot in a minute.”
“Sugar, surely.” The superintendent took a blue paper bag from the top of a wall of bags stacked against the side of the hut. “No shortage of sugar here.” They sat around the stove waiting for the kettle to find its voice.
“By Holy!” the watcher shouted from the window, and they all swung around to him. “By Holy, it’s them all right! The car, Gerald, the inspector! Gather up. Gather all up.”
“Aye, gather up quick,” said the big man, putting the sugar back on the stack and running for the cups. “All out, now. I’m sorry, doctor. Ah. the miserable sour man that couldn’t leave us a moment’s peace even on a night like this.”
“And the lady searcher’s with him,”said the window watcher. “Come on. now, doctor, come on. You’ve no idea the trouble we’ve had with this pair already.” He now stood by the door, ready to open it. “Have you everything with youse?”
“We have, we have, I think. You, girl?”
“These parcels?" she asked, pointing to the table.
“Ah. take them, take them, ma’am. They’re only trifles, I’m sure.”
“Good night, now, and safe home,”said the big man sadly, looking at the bottle in the doctor’s hand.
“Good night to you,” said the doctor, corking it. They stood silent for a second; then, “Here, have it, the two of you.”
“Ah, no, indeed. We couldn’t do that. Not at all. It wouldn’t be polite, doctor.”
“Take it,” said the doctor. “I never carried drink out of a party yet.”
“Well, then, God bless you, doctor. You’re a gentleman. And God bless your good lady, too!”