A Tale of old Seamus by Gerry McMullough

I usually manage to get up to Donegal around Christmas, to the little white washed cottage in Ardakil my grandparents left me. And while I’m there I like to catch up with my friend old Seamus O’Hare.

It was bitterly cold. Instead of going for a walk, I hurried down to the village and put my head round the door of The Golden Pheasant, our local pub. Sure enough, there was Seamus, sitting up at the bar with a pint of the black stuff, his disreputable old pipe in one hand. Not lit, of course, with the new laws – I suppose he held it from habit. When he saw me, he smiled, his brown, weather beaten face wrinkling with pleasure.

‘Not going outside for a smoke, Seamus?’ I asked, grinning, as I ordered a pint of my own.
‘Not in this weather, boy! To think that these days I can’t have a smoke indoors with my pint! Things change, don’t they? And not always for the better.’
‘You’re right there, Seamus,’ I agreed.
‘Still there have been good changes as well as bad in my lifetime,’ Seamus added thoughtfully. ‘People are treated better, mostly. When I think of wee Bridie Magee and how her employers treated her, when I was a youngster!’
‘Is it a story, Seamus?’ I asked hopefully.
‘I suppose it could be, Gerry. Let’s move over to the corner table, and I’ll tell you about Bridie.’ When we were settled in the corner of the bar, Seamus began.

Bridie Magee had worked for the Hamiltons for several years, since she left the orphanage at the age of sixteen. She did some housework for them, but her main job was to look after their two children, Mark and Debbie, and spoilt brats they were. They made Bridie’s life a misery, for she wasn’t allowed to punish them, and when she reported any particularly bad behaviour to their parents, such as the time they tripped her up and sent her flying down the stairs, or when they ‘accidently’ spilt ink all over her clean apron, it would be shrugged off with, ‘Och, they’re high spirited youngsters. They mean no harm.’  Bridie would have left if she had had any idea where to go, but work wasn’t so easy to come by in those days.

Bridie had a good friend, Johnny Lynch, who came round to see her whenever he could, and who constantly advised her to leave. Bridie wasn’t supposed to have friends visiting her, but Johnny usually managed to slip in quietly through the kitchen garden to meet her. He was a great help to her with the children, for Johnny was a tall, strong youngster, four years older than Bridie, and Mark and Debbie were in awe of him.
So far they hadn’t mentioned his presence to their parents, to Bridie’s relief. She knew that as soon as the Hamiltons found out, she would be forbidden to have Johnny round ever again.

But the day came when Mark tried to push Bridie into the lily pond, and Johnny, very angry, seized him and administered a hard slap on the seat of his trousers. Mark burst into unnecessary tears, more from fear than from any slight pain, and went roaring off to his mother, who immediately rushed to the scene of the crime.

Johnny, unwilling to leave Bridie to deal with Lesley Hamilton by herself, stood his ground and attempted to explain what Mark had been doing, but Mrs Hamilton wasn’t listening, and as Bridie had expected, Johnny was ordered to leave and forbidden ever to come back.
Now, I’d known Johnny for a good many years. He and I were much of an age, and we’d often gone fishing together. So it was natural that the next time we met up, Johnny poured out his troubles to me.
Then things got even worse.

It was nearly Christmas time. Bridie was due a holiday, and Johnny was expecting to see her. But this year, the Hamiltons had other plans. They had decided on a winter skiing holiday in Switzerland, and they had no intention of being hampered by their children while away. So Lesley Hamilton called Bridie into the drawing room one day and very graciously told her that they had booked a little holiday for her, at the time they themselves would be abroad.

‘A delightful country inn, my dear,’ she said. ‘A farmhouse which takes paying guests. Good country food and lots of animals to amuse the children. Of course, I knew you’d want to have Mark and Debbie with you, so I’ve booked them in as well. No, no, don’t thank me – you’d done so much for us, it’s the least we can do in return. Just enjoy your holiday, that will be thanks enough.’

Bridie was at a loss for words. Did Mrs Hamilton really think it would be a holiday for her if she still had to look after Mark and Debbie? Bridie found it hard to believe.

That night she wrote a doleful little note to Johnny, explaining that she wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas with him after all, because she would be away. Lesley Hamilton hadn’t yet told her exactly where, so she wasn’t able to give Johnny the address.
I came upon Johnny the next day, leaning over the bridge in Ardnakil, looking miserable. ‘Here, Seamus, what d’ye think of that?’ he said, handing Bridie’s note to me.

I read it quickly. ‘She seems pretty upset.’
‘So she does. And so am I, Seamus. We were both looking forward to being able to see each other during her holiday. Now I don’t even know where she’s going to be!’
‘Maybe I could find that out for you, Johnny,’ I said slowly. ‘And if you knew, would you plan to go there and meet up with her?’
‘Would I? You bet I would, Seamus!’
‘Well, be here tomorrow and I’ll have news for you,’ I said. ‘Meanwhile, time you took steps to get your wee girl out of that job, Johnny boy!’

My idea was quite simple. I was very friendly, at that time, with the girl who ran the small village post office and telephone exchange. As soon as I left Johnny I headed there to see her. She was a pretty young lass, but a year or so afterwards she married and moved away, before I could decide if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. That’s how it goes, you see, if you don’t make up your mind in time.

‘Top of the morning to you, Molly my dear,’ I greeted her. ‘You’re looking extra pretty today!’ And after a bit of banter back and forth, I got down to it. ‘You see all the post here, Molly,’ I began. ‘You’ll have seen letters from the Hamiltons booking their Christmas holidays?’
‘Aye, right, holidays is the word!’ Molly exclaimed. ‘Two places, they’ve booked. I heard her ringing up about it on the switchboard, and then I saw the letters. A hotel in Switzerland for a fortnight, no less. And two weeks in a farmhouse away near Letterkenny. I heard her ringing up a friend to ask her to recommend somewhere cheap. The friend said this wasn’t much of a place but the rates were as cheap as you’d get.’
‘And did you notice the address, Molly my dear?’
‘I did that, Seamus. It’s The Two Trees, Dunkelly.’

I made a careful note of the address and next morning I passed it on to Johnny, who was delighted. He told me afterwards that he set off that same day by train and bus, across country, to get to the place.

It was late by the time he got there and he couldn’t see much in the dark. The place was shut up and there were no lights. In the end he decided to put up in Letterkenny for the night and go out to The Two Trees again the following day.

When he got there, he was horrified at the broken down, shabby appearance of the farmhouse. An old, dilapidated building, it stood by itself, miles from the nearest houses, surrounded by neglected fields full of weeds. The only animals in sight were a couple of donkeys grazing forlornly in one of the fields. Johnny strode firmly up to the front door. The bell was broken. He seized the door knocker and thumped the flaking paint of the old wooden door. No one answered. Johnny called out in his most powerful roar, ‘Bridie! Are you there?’

He listened hard, and heard a patter of flying feet. A moment later the door burst open, and Bridie came hurtling out into his arms.
‘Oh, Johnny! How did you know I was here? It’s so lovely to see you!’
Johnny held on to her and kissed her warmly. But after a few minutes, Bridie broke away and began to cry. ‘Johnny, I’m in such trouble! I’ve lost the children!’
‘Hush, darlin’, hush now,’ said Johnny, patting her arm.
‘Johnny, I took them out for a walk this morning, because there’s nothing else for them to do here, and they ran away from me! I don’t know where they went – and anything might have happened to them – especially in this bitter cold!’
‘Bitter cold is right,’ agreed Johnny. ‘ I think it’s starting to snow. Best come inside before we both freeze to death, girl.’ He led her through the doorway, but was immediately struck by the fact that it was, if anything, even colder indoors than out. ‘Dear sakes, what sort of a place is this for you to be staying, sweetheart?’ he exclaimed.
‘Oh, Johnny, it’s a dreadful place,’ Bridie shuddered. ‘So cold, and the meals badly cooked and hardly enough to feed a bird! But never mind all that! What am I going to do about the children?’
‘Do they have any money?’ Johnny asked.
‘Oh, yes, their parents always give them lots of pocket money. They have plenty.’
‘Then my guess is that they’ve gone into Letterkenny to get the train back to Ardnakil, Bridie. And I think you and I had better do the same. Now, go and pack your things, for I’m not letting you stay here a moment longer.’ And he sent her straight up to her room to pack.

While he was waiting an elderly woman came out from the back of the farmhouse to ask what he was doing there. Johnny soon sent her about her business. ‘Let her go if she likes,’ the woman said shrilly, ‘but you needn’t think you’re getting any money back!’
‘It’s not my money, granny,’ Johnny said cheerfully, ‘so I can’t say I’m worried.’
By the time Bridie came down with her suitcase, the woman had blustered herself away into the kitchen again.

Bridie still looked worried. ‘Johnny, suppose the children come back here and find I’ve gone?’ she asked anxiously.
‘We’ll leave a message for them, Bridie. But it’s not likely. Anyone with the money to get away from here would be bound to go. We’ll maybe catch up with them at the railway station. They’ll not get a train before two o’clock – I know, because I checked the timetable yesterday. But if they aren’t there, we’ll report it to the Gardai.’
They got a lift on a passing cart which was going to Letterkenny, and went straight to the station. There, Johnny made Bridie wait out of the cold in the railway cafe with a warm cup of tea, while he searched for Mark and Debbie.
There was a sound of sobbing coming from the waiting room. Johnny went in. Debbie was crouched on one of the benches with her head buried in her arms, while Mark patted her in a brotherly fashion, his face showing dismay. He was clearly at a loss to know what to do. Johnny could see that both children realised they had made a big mistake. When they looked up and saw Johnny, joy spread over their faces.
‘Well, that was a daft thing to do, wasn’t it?’ Johnny said cheerfully. ‘Fancy getting yourselves lost at Christmas time! You might have missed your presents! Don’t cry, Debbie. Come on and we’ll get you both some hot soup. And after that we’re going home to Ardnakil!’

Johnny didn’t pull his punches when he phoned the Hamiltons that evening to tell them what he thought of their holiday farmhouse, and how badly they’d treated not only Bridie but their own children. They must have been ashamed, because they came rushing home from Switzerland to look after Mark and Debbie themselves over Christmas.
As for Bridie, Johnny refused to let her stay there once the Hamiltons were back. Instead, he whisked her away to his own parents, just until he could arrange for them to get married. ‘No arguments, Bridie darlin’,’ he said. ‘I should have done this long ago.’ And Bridie was only too happy to agree.

You see, Johnny was a man who could make his mind up and be sure not to miss what he really wanted. He wasn’t as foolish as me!

Read original short stories every week in Ireland’s Own