The past had been playing on Maura’s mind …..but her attempt to right a wrong has an unexpected outcome
By Fergus Caulfield
Maura was resting easy in the armchair by the fire, her head back and her left foot tapping away to a song on the radio by The Fureys, a timeless classic she had often sung to her children when they were still just about of an age not to be embarrassed by that kind of thing, …“I love you as I’ve never loved before”…she sang, dueting with Finbar’s soft raspy voice, closing her eyes in delight when Davey Arthur’s banjo solo took over.
It was hard to believe so many years had passed since she first heard the song. Her three children had long been adults and two of them, Pat and Sinéad, now had children themselves.
Her own Billy had passed, and here she now sat – an old woman warming her legs by the fire – as she had done all her life, still enjoying the song as much as she did so many decades ago.
Maura wasn’t one for maudling so she shook herself, drank down what was left of the cold tea, leaned forward in the chair so she could reach the walking frame, took a moment to concentrate and pulled herself to her feet, automatically leaning to the left, taking the weight off the right hip she had managed to crack after falling over the stupid cat. She would have skinned him alive if she caught him, especially after he added insult to injury by meowing at her whilst sitting near her head licking his paw, and poor Maura lay on the cold floor hoping to God she had her mobile phone in her apron. Good fortune was on her side and an ambulance was there within half an hour.
There was little the hospital could do for her, so she was back home after a few days, having been told to rest, stay off the hip and a community nurse would call every few days.
Clare was her name, a nice girl, but young, and Maura always found it hard to take advice from someone who had such little life experience…compared to Maura at any rate.
She shuffled to the sink and washed her cup. The place was tidy enough, it would have to do; dragging the hoover around was beyond her at the moment, not that she hadn’t tried, but even Maura knew when she was beat. It could be weeks or months before she was back on her feet properly – if ever. Old bones weren’t conducive to speedy repair.
As she wiped down the draining board she saw Clare’s little car pull up outside. She topped the kettle up, turned it on and shuffled back to the chair. Clare knocked once on the door and entered as Maura had previously told her to do.
“Hello and how are you today, are you well?” Clare asked, smiling as she always did, sitting down on the couch.
“Couldn’t be better,” Maua replied sarcastically as a stabbing pain hit went through her hip.
“Great,” Clare replied, well used to the sarcasm after three weeks as her nurse. “I see you have been resting like I recommended,” she continued, using a little sarcasm of her own as she looked at the boiling kettle?
“You wouldn’t want me to die of thirst would you?” Maura asked indignantly. “I can’t sit still all day.”
“No, that’s true,” Clare acknowledged, “but only move when necessary for the next couple of weeks. We’ll get you some physio and you’ll be back to full strength in no time.” She smiled at Maura, knowing she wasn’t convincing either of them. “Did Sinéad come round this morning?”
“Yes”, Maura replied, stoking the dying embers of the fire, “the dutiful daughter came round and helped her geriatric mother out of her bed and made her some breakfast.”
“Great,” Clare said, “let me get you a nice cup of tea and I’ll have a look at your hip.”
So Clare did as she had done for the last few weeks, trying her best to ignore Maura’s complaints, remaining positive in the face of adversity.
“Right. That’s me done. I’ll be an hour or so earlier on Thursday because I have a call to do over in Whitechurch after I see you.”
“Whitechurch is it”? asked Maura, her ears pricking up. “I used to know a fella over that way. His family had the farm at the bottom of the valley, over the bridge past the pub. Seán was his name, Seán Ryan. That takes me back.”
She laughed as she thought back to those days, and noticed that Clare looked a little caught off guard.
“Is it Seán you’re seeing?” asked Maura seizing the opportunity. “Well, what a coincidence. Is he well? I suppose not, or you wouldn’t be calling on him.” Maura paused and looked enquiringly at Clare.
“Sorry, Maura but I have to respect patient confidentiality. It wouldn’t be right for me to say anything. I could lose my job.”
“Musha, don’t worry about that. Sure aren’t I the soul of discretion,” Maura said, almost believing herself. “I have only seen him a handful of times over the years, at funerals and the like. He went to England for a while. Well, there’s a blast from the past. Oh, and of course, about fifty years ago we were engaged to be married!”
Maura looked at Clare, pursing her lips, nodding slightly as if this was privileged information she was now party to, hoping for dramatic effect.
“Really,” said Clare, zipping up her coat, who obviously hadn’t understood the impact of what she had just been told. “Well, perhaps you can tell me that story another time, but I must be off now. See you in a couple of days. Take care, I’ll see myself out.”
And she was off, leaving Maura thinking about poor Seán. Someone must know what ailed him. Time for a bit of detective work. So Maura rang round her circle of friends and acquaintances, trying her best to squeeze even the slightest bit of information from them and she succeeded on the third call, speaking to an old school friend in the next village.
The news wasn’t good. Seán had cancer, and was recovering after an operation and still lived alone on the family farm in Whitechurch.
After Maura hung up, she thought about the year she had spent being courted by Seán, most of it still remarkably fresh in her mind, especially the night she told him that she was breaking off their engagement.
She tried not to be harsh when he asked the reason why, for he had no inkling this had been coming, but he kept on at her, insisting he could make things right between them; but he couldn’t, because Maura didn’t want him to.
She didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife and she didn’t want to be his wife, and she eventually told him so, and it wasn’t an amicable parting. Within a week he had left on the boat for England, not returning for ten years or so when he came back to take over the farm.
He had never married and Maura had started to feel twinges of guilt as the years rolled on. Perhaps now would be a good time to build bridges, to say sorry, because by all accounts there didn’t seem to be too much time left.
Maura considered what her next step should be. She was going to visit him; that much she was sure of. But should she just turn up unannounced, or ring in advance? She would make that decision tomorrow, but now was time for bed. It’s amazing how sitting around all day can tire you out.
The next day passed as the previous weeks had. Sinéad came both morning and evening to help her mother and Maura considered her options with regards to Seán, finally deciding on an appropriate course of action in her mind. On the day that Clare was due to visit, Maura was ready, fully dressed, her hat and overcoat on and she was out the door before Clare had pulled up the handbrake.
“Where are you going,” asked Clare a little bewildered. “You can’t be walking far in your condition.”
“I won’t be walking anywhere,” replied Maura, opening the passenger door, painfully easing herself onto the seat. “We’re going to see Seán.”
“We are not going to see Seán! Do you want me to lose my job? I can’t bring visitors with me. I’m a nurse, not a taxi.”
“Well, he said it would be okay,” replied Maura, fighting with the seat belt. “In fact, he said he would be delighted to see me. Would perk him right up, better than medicine and he doesn’t have many visitors.”
“This is highly irregular,” Clare said, not sure what she should do. “You spoke to him?”
“Yes, I spoke to him. Now let’s get on. I really should be resting, come on child.”
The farm house didn’t seem to have changed much over the years. A new roof and windows and a coat of paint, but from the outside it was still recognisable. A Collie greeted them on arrival, barking its head off, bringing Seán round from the back where he had been tending to his vegetable patch.
“Hello Clare, welcome. Get down Patch, knock it off,” he scolded the Collie who took no notice and sat at Clare’s feet, anxious for some attention.
“Hello. Nice day for a change. I’ve brought your visitor for you”. She nodded at Maura who had just opened the passenger door, fighting again with the seatbelt, this time to take it off.
“My visitor?” Seán said in surprise. “What visitor?” He looked to see who was getting out of the car.
“Maura. You said for her to come and see you….didn’t you?”
“Maura who?” Seán asked, going to see who was getting out of the car, more than taken aback when he saw Maura O’Connell, as he had known her, struggling to alight.
“Give us your hand, there’s a good fellow. These little tin cans weren’t built for elderly ladies with a bad hip, that’s for sure.”
Seán did as he was asked, helping Maura to her feet, and into the house at her direction before he could ask any more.
She stood in the kitchen. “I’ll stand here a minute to stretch myself. It’s nice to see you again after all these years. I was sorry to hear about your situation.”
Seán was still looking at her in surprise. Clare had put the kettle on and was pretending to check the medication in the cupboard, not wishing to get dragged any further into Maura’s plot.
“You’re looking well”, Maura said, giving him the once over. He had lost weight and his hair was thinning, probably the medication, and completely grey. But he didn’t look bad, all things considered, and he was quite a few years older than her.
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” Seán asked, sitting down. “To say I wasn’t expecting you would be a bit of an understatement.”
“Well, I heard you weren’t well,” Maura said,“from an old friend of mine.” She emphasised the ‘old friend’ for Clare’s benefit. “And I thought I should pop over here and see you before…you know…before…I just thought it would be nice to see you, give my regards to an old friend who is having a difficult time.”
“It looks like you’re having a more difficult time than me,” Seán replied, looking at Maura, who was leaning to one side like the Tower of Pisa, holding her hip, with a face so drawn and white you’d think she had just broken the hip.
“Sure, I’m fine,” Maura said. “The road down here isn’t very kind. It’s somewhat rocky even for the country. Anyway, being on the level, you know, with both of us not getting any younger, and you in your condition, I wanted to make amends…to say sorry.”
“Sorry?” asked Seán inquisitively, taking the cup of tea from Clare, “and what have you be sorry for. Sure we have only spoken a handful of words to each other over the last years.”
“No, Seán. I’m talking about a lot further back than that, when we were engaged.” Maura sat down next to him, taking her tea off Clare, who promptly disappeared out the door, thinking it best perhaps to wait in the car or play with Patch.
“I think about how upset you were the night I broke our engagement off. It’s still fresh in my mind, you know, and then you left for England, and never married. I suppose because of the trauma I caused you, and you never had children. And I feel bad because of that, like I ruined your life. But I couldn’t marry someone I didn’t really love. I am sorry.”
Maura looked at him like he was a helpless child; with pity, patronisingly and a little smile.
Tempted as Seán had been to interject, he waited until Maura had stopped speaking, took a sip from his tea to compose himself and said, “Maura, this might come as a surprise, but when you finished with me I was relieved. Our marriage would have been a disaster. I would have broken it off myself if it wasn’t for my mother. I could tell you wanted more than I could give you and I must say you weren’t the easiest woman to get on with…even without being married.”
“But…” Maura tried to interrupt, but Seán was flowing now. “Breaking the engagement off was the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me an excuse to go abroad, leave the farm for a while and explore the world, even if it was only England.
“And I met other women there Maura, in fact I was engaged twice, but I eventually realised that marriage wasn’t for me – the cons did outweigh the pros, so I came back when I felt ready and took over the farm. And I am glad I did.
“My heart was always here. I don’t want to be hurtful, but I dread to think what our lives would have been if we had been married. Neither of us would have been happy. So you don’t have to be sorry. If anything, I’m sorry this has been playing on your mind for so many years.”
It was unusual for Maura to be listening rather than speaking, so she drank her tea to hide the dumbstruck expression on her face, eventually breaking the ensuing silence quietly.
“Well. What can I say to that? Funny how you can judge a situation so wrongly. There’s nothing else to say I suppose.”
Maura started to her feet, putting her cup down on the table.
“Ah, sit down out of that,” Seán said, “and finish your tea. You’ve come to visit so I might as well get my money’s worth.
“Now, how are those children of yours, and grandchildren as well by now I suppose?”
So Maura sat back and they spoke. Small talk, but talk all the same, probably more than they had told each other when they were supposedly in love, planning their life together.
Clare had to tell Maura three times that she was leaving before getting her in the car and Seán waved them off, smiling to himself.
The car was quiet on the way home. Maura was tired, her hip was throbbing but she was pleased she had seen Seán, bringing some closure to a chapter of her life she often thought about – even if her pride had been hurt.
“I hope he pulls through, Clare. He’s a good man.”
“He may well do,” Clare replied. “His operation seems to have been successful, so hopefully he’ll go into remission.
“He’s not a young man, but he seems happy and at peace with his life. What more could anyone ask for?”
“What indeed?” thought Maura.
Maybe young women do have sense afterall.
Read original short stories in Ireland’s Own every week