Macushla by Joe Spearin
A young woman takes an interest in a stranger, on a bus, on a poignant journey home…
The inside of the waiting bus was warm. The low hum of the diesel engine told of power and energy and the generation of heat. Sarah found herself an empty seat at the back, on the right-hand side, her usual spot.
She recognised most of the passengers, regulars on this Friday evening special service that would head westward from the capital and go deep into the Midlands, dropping people off along the way, people like herself going home, having worked all week in the city.
On Sunday evening, the reverse trip would be made, bringing them back to their bedsits and flats.
Sarah considered herself fortunate to have a maisonette on the north side of Dublin, close to where she worked as a civil servant.
This accommodation had been made affordable through several promotions in her job over a number of years.
Now in her fifties, she was settled in what, for her, was a comfortable lifestyle. She was unattached, independent and secure. Born in the midlands, she made the weekly journey back home to visit her mother, a widow in her late seventies.
The bus was almost full now, the last person to board was a middle-aged man dressed in black, carrying a haversack. He wore a balaclava-type woollen hat that covered most of his head. She hadn’t seen him on the bus before. He sat at the front, near the driver.
The door closed and the bus began to move, negotiating the urban maze of roundabouts and junctions until it found the west-bound carriageway.
With the sun almost entirely below the horizon, oncoming vehicles were already showing their headlights.
Sarah settled down to enjoy the comfort of movement, something she had always found to be relaxing.
Occasionally, on this journey, she would read from a magazine or a newspaper but this evening she was in a reflective mood.
Lulled by the dull drone of the engine, she closed her eyes and lapsed into a dream like state.
Her mind went back to an evening in the late 1940s when she was nine years old. In the kitchen of her home her mother sits knitting.
As the needles click and clack, her mother sings softly. ‘Snowey breasted pearl’ is one of her favourites. ‘If I were a blackbird’ is another song that is popular and is often heard on the radio. Sarah’s own favourite is ‘Macushla’. She plays it over and over again on the old wind-up gramophone, a family heirloom. The song became her party piece and its title became her pet name.
“Will you bring in the washing from the line Macushla, before it rains,” her mother would say.
The image fades and is replaced by another scene, years later, when she is in her teens. She is in the home of her best friend, Emily Moran. Emily has just received a birthday parcel, sent from abroad by her older brother who is away at sea, a merchant sailor.
“Look at what he sent me Sarah, a box of paints, comics and a cotton doll. He thinks I’m still a child. I’d much rather he sent me something useful like cosmetics or clothes. He’s been away too long.”
The bus is slowing down and when it stops, one of the passengers, a young woman, says goodnight to the driver before she alights.
Sarah opens her eyes and looks out of the window. She recognises the dimly-lit street of the village they have stopped at. The bus pulls away and gathers speed. She returns to her world of reverie and reminiscence. She is back again in the kitchen with her mother. It is the summer of 1964 and she is on holidays from work. Some tradesmen have carried out renovations to the house and her mother has enjoyed the buzz of activity.
“Wasn’t he the handsome one, Macushla, that young carpenter. He’d be a nice fellow now to have sitting at your table. And did you see the way the electrician was giving you the eye?”
“Mam, if you don’t stop this mischief I’ll be going straight back to Dublin on the next bus.”
“You’ll end up on the shelf Macushla.”
“Well if I do Mam, it’ll be my own choice and it’ll be the finest mahogany shelf you’ll ever see with an embroidered cushion to go with it.” Her mother picks up her knitting and begins to sing; “Mellow the moonlight to shine is beginning, Close by the window young Eileen is spinning…”
The bus slows down and stops outside a church, close to a crossroads. Three people get off.
Sarah decides to stay alert for the rest of the journey. As the bus halts at various places along the road she guesses who will be getting off next and where.
She soon tires of this game and her mind drifts back to her early days in the civil service. She was not without her suitors then. Her first date was with a work colleague. Ed was tall and good looking but he was also awkward and clumsy, lacking in confidence. Ed took her to the cinema where he sat silently through a gruesome Hammer studios film. She didn’t go out with him again.
There were others after that, bright young men who were earnest and keen. She tolerated each one of them until she got bored, casting them aside, as an angler might return unwanted fish to the water.
The men she really liked were unavailable. She fell in love with Omar Sharif. Then she had a crush on Cary Grant. She took a fancy to Clark Gable when she saw him in ‘Gone with the Wind’.
The actor she liked best was Spencer Tracy. She went to see him in ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ twice. He was her Hollywood heartthrob and she didn’t mind at all that he was much older than herself.
She is brought back to the present as the bus rumbles along a stretch of rough terrain where road works have been going on. Not far to go now, she thinks, before she’ll be landed. This weekend she intends to call to her friend Emily. Emily is married with three teenage children, quite a handful, Sarah reckons.
When the bus pulls in outside the brightly lit Spar shop she stands up.
The man with the woollen hat is already stepping onto the pavement outside.
By the time she reaches the exit he is halfway up the street, disappearing into the darkness. She buys biscuits and a magazine in the shop. Then she makes her way along the footpath, past the church and the school, turning right at the top of the street to where her mother’s house stands amid a line of six dwellings. Something is wrong.
The house is in darkness. Using her key, she lets herself in, switches on the lights and calls to her mother. The kitchen is empty. So is the living room. She enters her mother’s bedroom. “Mam, are you alright? What’s wrong?”
Her mother moves in the bed, looks up at her and gasps. “I have a bit of a cold Macushla…can’t get my breath. My chest aches.”
Sarah props her up with pillows and gives her some water in a glass. There is a phone in the house next door. She calls for an ambulance.
In the hospital, the medical staff battle to stop her mother from lapsing into unconsciousness. Undiagnosed hypertension has weakened her heart.
She drifts into a coma and with Sarah holding her hand, she slips away quietly, her last breath being just like a contented sigh. “She was never sick in her life,” Sarah tells nurses who move to console her. “I always thought she’d live to be a hundred.”
Two nights later, in the mortuary, she found solace in the large attendance.
The line of sympathisers stretched onto the street outside. Sarah glanced along the queue, recognising faces. Amongst the mourners she saw a man who paused at the coffin.
He was middle-aged and tanned with a full crop of silvery grey hair cut short, a Spencer Tracy-lookalike.
When he took her hand she felt a warmth and a tenderness and she wondered who this stranger was.
He introduced himself. “George Moran,” he said. “I’m Emily’s brother. Your mother was a lovely lady. I’m so sorry for your trouble.”
She watched him move away and as he left the room he donned a black woollen hat. He had been on the bus two nights earlier. He was at the graveside the following day and he lingered as the crowd dispersed after the burial. Sarah approached him.
“Thanks for coming,” she said. “You caught me unawares last evening. I didn’t know who you were until you told me.”
He smiled. “It’s my first time home in years. My seafaring days are over, I’m afraid. I caught some malaria-type of illness out in Africa. I’m okay most of the time but when it flares up I have to take to the bed for a day or two. But here I am blathering on about myself and you with the grief and sorrow around you.”
They walked together, talking as they went. When they were close to Sarah’s house she asked him if he would come in for a cup of tea. “I could do with a bit of company,” she told him. “A house with just one heart beating in it can be a lonely place.”
While she was in the kitchen he saw the old gramophone in the corner of the living room. “Does that record player still work?” he asked.
“I’ll give it a try,” she said.
The handle creaked as she wound it up. She took a single from the stack of records and lowered the arm gently until the needle touched the wax disc. John MacCormack’s voice filled the room.
“Macushla, Macushla your sweet voice is calling,
Calling me softly again and again”
When the song ended George saw tears in her eyes.
“That was my pet name. My mother always called me Macushla.”
“A lovely name,” he said.
She poured tea and they spoke about how nice it was that the old songs had endured. Looking across the table at him she remembered Spencer Tracy and the time she saw hi in ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’.
“Are you going to be staying at Emily’s?” she asked.
“Only until I find my own place. My sister has more than enough to be doing without having me under her feet. I don’t mind where I sling my hammock as long as there’s a roof over my head.”
Normally, she was not an impulsive person, but her next words came as naturally to her as if she known him all of her life.
“You can stay here if you like…while you’re looking for a place. I’ll be going back to Dublin at the end of the week. That way you won’t be any bother to Emily.”
He protested. “Ah now girl, I couldn’t be imposing on you like that…”
She cut him off. “You’ll be doing me a favour. I don’t like the idea of the house being empty.”
His eyes brightened. “Well, if you really don’t mind an old sea salt dropping anchor here.temporarily, of course.”
“Then its done,” she said. “More tea?”
They spent the rest of the evening chatting, mainly about local happenings, news of people and events that he had missed while he was sailing the seven seas. He was a good listener.
When she asked him about his travels he was shy to recount his experiences but he made her laugh when he recalled being left behind in Singapore once, when he went on a binge.
“That finished me with the booze,” he said. “I hardly ever went ashore again after that.”
She wondered what her mother would have thought of this handsome man. She tried to imagine how nice it would be to come home from Dublin at weekends and find him waiting for her, to walk with him to mass or to stroll along the river bank with him on warm summer evenings.
It was close to midnight when he stood up to leave.
“Will you call in before the end of the week?” she asked. “I want to rearrange some furniture and I might need some help.”
“I can be here tomorrow if you like,” he said, making no attempt to conceal his willingness.
At the hall door he turned, took her hand, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Goodnight Macushla.” Then he was gone.
She walked back into the living room and she smiled. “Goodnight Spencer,” she said.