Love in the Shadows
Maggie Doolin © 2020
All Rights Reserved
August 1975. County Limerick, Ireland.
The August evening is gloriously mellow and warm with insects flitting among the bushes in the garden, and Sheridan’s Hill across the way is covered in a golden haze.
“This is the kind of day,” Meg mused, “that signals the end of the summer holidays. A day this perfect has to be an omen of some misfortune.”
“Wow, how philosophical,” Aisling said, rolling her eyes. She lay sprawled under the old horse chestnut, taking advantage of its dappled shade. “But I know what you mean. Think, this day next week—an end to freedom. Instead, we’ll have the jangling of bells, boring old classes, and teachers constantly talking about the Leaving. Blah, blah, blah.” She let out a long groan, the palm of her hand against her forehead.
Meg grimaced. “Yeah, and Boyce threatening us at least once in each class with being thrown into Ordinary level maths.”
They both fell silent, lost in their own worries. Meg, at eighteen, older than Aisling by a mere two months, frowned. At five foot four, she wished she would grow another few inches. She had brown hair with a natural wave, a narrow face that lit up with mischief, and mesmerising green eyes, or so she’d been told. She and Aisling had met on the first day of primary school, and they’d been friends ever since.
Standing at least five foot eight tall, Aisling had shoulder-length blonde hair and never found herself at a loss for a word. Her father had died when she was only a baby, and she’d grown up with her older brother and mother under a mile from where Meg lived with her parents and brother on the far side of the small village of Tullybawn. They were constantly in and out of each other’s houses, and both mothers joked they had each acquired a second daughter.
Aisling was outgoing and interested in doing while Meg, though popular and quick-witted, loved reading, and was, as her exasperated mother reminded her frequently, “A bit of a dreamer.”
“This year is going to be pretty grim, I fear.” Aisling frowned. “I’m terrified of biology, and I badly need that honour to get into nursing.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel,” Meg replied, blowing out through puffed cheeks as she shook her head. “I’m depending on the council grant for college, so I need four honours. Irish is grand, and I’m fine with geography and history, but English is a real challenge. I don’t understand what those poets are babbling on about. And as for Shakespeare, oh my God! At least Boyce can teach, but Clancy is a total disaster.”
They fell silent again. Meg glanced around the garden, her gaze caught by the swing hanging from the old beech. The wood faded now with age, and she visualised her father, sleeves rolled up and tongue slightly protruding, as he fixed the timber seat in place before climbing up the ladder to hang it from the tree. She and her brother, Luke, had danced around with excitement, driving her father mad with their impatience to try it out. She recalled the heady sensation of whizzing through the air. She had imagined taking off and soaring skywards like a bird. “Higher! Higher!” she’d shouted at her father as Luke pulled at his trouser leg, impatient for his turn. She loved their large garden with its trees, and the river at the bottom where her mother showed them how to catch minnows in jam jars, as excited as they were. Barefoot, they’d burrow one foot under the bank to flush out the tiny, darting fish. Her face softened, worries about the Leaving temporarily forgotten as she basked in the warm glow of the past.
A bike whizzing past the house and a hello thrown over the hedge recalled her to the present. She scrunched her face at Aisling, and they both giggled.
“C’mon,” Aisling cried, jumping up and striking a dramatic pose. “Things might be a whole lot worse. We might have lived during the time of arranged marriages, and at this moment, be contemplating your wedding to Mr Timmy Cronin, known to one and all, friend and foe alike, as Timmy Bucket Arse. Imagine, that would give you the unenviable title of Mrs Timmy Bucket Arse, honeymooning on a bicycle made for two…”
The last few words were sung theatrically before they both dissolved into fits of giggles again. For the moment, the Leaving Cert and honours and grants were swept from their minds. Time enough to worry about all that when they returned to school next week.
For a small school, eighty bodies made for a chaotic passageway.
“You’d think people hadn’t seen one another for years instead of last weekend at the dance,” Jo grumbled as she, Meg, Bernie, and Aisling pushed their way through the screaming throng.
“Hiya,” Tom said, panting as he came up from behind accompanied by a grinning Michael. “So, do you feel all grown up and serious now that we’re in Leaving? Jesus, imagine, we’ll be out of here in no time. Yippee!”
Michael leaned in. “Guess what?” Not waiting for an answer, he beamed around at the group. “Brilliant news. Old Clancy hasn’t returned, and good bloody riddance to him, I say.”
“You’re kidding?” Aisling said.
The group stopped dead and looked at him. Meg’s eyes widened. Mr Clancy not returning!
“So who have we for English?” she asked.
“Not the foggiest notion.” Michael grinned.
Bernie shrugged. “Whoever he is, he can’t be as useless as old Clancy, that’s for sure.”
They made their way to the Leaving Cert classroom where the usual dossers filled the rear row of desks.
“God,” Jo said, sighing aloud, “you lot are so pathetic. You’d never think you were all grown up and nearly ready to launch yourselves on the unsuspecting world.”
“Yerra, go on,” one of the lads shouted. “Sure, it’s long enough we’ll have to be sensible and hardworking.”
“Yeah,” another one said, sniggering, “might as well make hay while the sun shines.”
Jo looked to Meg and rolled her eyes as she dropped her bag on the floor.
At that moment, the bell rang and the students standing grabbed a seat. The four girls pushed into the empty front row, ignoring for the moment the twelve others who made up the Leaving Cert class of 197576.
“Good morning all, and welcome to the new school year. A most important one for all of you.” Mr Ó Murchú stood at the door. All heads swivelled towards him.
“I hope you all enjoyed your summer.” He paused, his attention focused on the row at the rear of the room. “Ah, lads, I see things haven’t changed. No newfound maturity picked up during the holidays?”
Meg twisted her head. The lads at the rear were grinning, in no way abashed, with a few muttering under their breaths.
“Right, Miss Stewart, you’ll need to keep an eye on some of these fellas; they don’t believe in hard graft. In fact, I think it would be fair to say they don’t believe in any graft at all.”
Meg realised the tall, bulky figure of Mr Ó Murchú had been partially hiding another person, a female figure. A stunned silence reigned. The only other females among the twelve-strong staff were Mrs O’Callaghan, near retirement age, and Miss Boyce, the plump, excitable little maths teacher. The person standing in front of them now bore no resemblance to either one.
Possibly in her mid-twenties, tall and slim, with a shock of curly black hair and a smattering of freckles, the young woman stepped forward to stand beside the principal, self-possessed in the customary black gown.
“Well, class, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Stewart, who is replacing Mr Clancy. I hope you’ll make her feel welcome. She’ll be taking the Honours English class for the year.”
“Good morning,” she said, her tone crisp.
Meg tried to place the accent but gave up. She had no idea at all which Irish county it originated from; definitely not Limerick though. Miss Stewart surveyed them, some amusement in her eyes. Meg understood why. She must think we’re cracked, sitting here with our mouths open, gaping at her. For some reason, though, she believed this woman mightn’t be a pushover like old Clancy. The glint in her eyes hinted at spirit, and her easy stance gave the impression she wouldn’t be easily overawed. Meg narrowed her eyes. Observing her more closely, she noted the hand clenching the textbook. Oh, no, the poor woman. Facing into a class of strangers can’t be easy. Maybe she wasn’t as confident as she appeared after all, but a pretty good actress.
“Right.” Mr Ó Murchú rubbed his hands, nodded in the general direction of Miss Stewart, and left.
Forty minutes later, they slumped into their chairs, exhausted. More work had been done in this one class than they’d managed for the entire previous term. But the true revelation was how interesting an English class could be. Where Mr Clancy had droned on, reading from books, calling out notes, telling them what the poets meant, and not much caring whether they were listening or not, Miss Stewart was dynamic and full of enthusiasm. At the beginning of class, she divided the students into four groups before handing out copies of a poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which they had to read. This led to a ten-minute group discussion on what they understood the poem to be about. After that, they had a general class discussion, with a few of the dossers even participating.
The fact she took for granted they had a brain proved enough to get them working. She was the first teacher in the school, not only to ask them their opinions, but to be prepared to listen to them as well. Heady stuff. A quarter of an hour later, Meg and Michael were so animated over their difference of opinion on what the poet, Eliot, meant, they had to be forcibly calmed down. After the bell rang and Miss Stewart departed, a brief silence ensued before an excited babble broke out.
“Not a bad looker either,” Michael whispered, having the last word as Mr Jones swept in to take French.
At break time, all the talk centred on the new teacher. Rumours abounded: she was an orphan; she was a relative of old Mrs Roche in the grocery shop; she’d come from Clare; she was a poet. The senior lads wondered aloud if she had a boyfriend tucked away somewhere. No one had a clue though. Tom noticed the absence of any rings, and the boys agreed she looked like a hot thing.
Bernie gave a derisive snort. “God, what grubby little minds you possess. As if you’d know, anyway.” She hooked Meg’s elbow as they returned to the classroom, Meg humming under her breath as she anticipated some pretty exciting English classes from now on.
And so it proved. Under Miss Stewart’s encouragement and enthusiasm, Meg discovered she had a natural talent for the subject and delighted in debate. She secretly revelled, too, in the woman’s praise and looked forward to the daily English class. Their new teacher encouraged them to think, to debate, to prove their points, and to write concisely. She took no nonsense from anyone inclined to be giddy. It astonished Meg that a mere raising of her left eyebrow, or letting a silence lengthen, maintained order. Soon, there was no need for the eyebrow or the silence, and the class repaid Miss Stewart’s respect for them as adults with a similar regard, which had them working well. At times, they even joked together.
All Miss Stewart’s other classes were run in the same way. She never once resorted to crude physical punishment or hurtful insults, unlike most of the other staff members, yet she never had a discipline problem, and her classes were both interesting and well run. Meg, to her delight, improved hugely, achieving grade B and even A in her essays on a regular basis and, as time went on, she discovered it gave her added pleasure when Miss Stewart smiled at her and praised her for improving so much in such a short time.
“You know,” she mumbled through a mouthful of food, as she and the girls ate lunch one day, “I finally understand now what we were taught for confirmation. I never did at the time.”
“Oh?” Bernie, a real tomboy and a marvel at maths, grunted, more interested in her ham sandwich.
Meg grimaced. “Well, you know, we were taught that during the confirmation ceremony the Holy Ghost descended on us and made us see clearer…or something.” She swallowed a nervous lump under the sceptical eyes of the other three.
“There’s definitely an important point here,” Aisling mused. “For some reason, though, I can’t put my finger on it.”
Meg leaned over and thumped her shoulder. “What I mean, oh Dim One, is that Stewart coming in taking English is a bit like that, you know, the whole subject has opened up like…well, like a flower sort of unfolding. It makes sense. It’s kinda like a new world.”
“Well, yeah,” Jo agreed, “she’s pretty good, I grant you, but the Holy Ghost? Ah, Jesus, c’mon.”
“Philistines!” Meg had to laugh. She got down to finishing off her lunch. Somehow, though, the rest of the students got to hear about it, and Miss Stewart’s nickname throughout the school became the Holy Ghost.
After school, Meg and Aisling normally walked home together. Jo and Bernie travelled on the school bus as they lived over three miles from Tullybawn. Sometimes, Tom and Michael joined them if they weren’t training for the school football or hurling team. Tom was a tall good-looking boy with a ready smile and an untidy lock of blond hair falling over his forehead while Michael, average size with brown eyes, had an obsession with girls, sports, and history, in that order. Like Meg and Aisling, the two boys had been friends for years and were close to the girls since they’d started First Year together. Tom’s father owned one of the two village shops which sold all kind of goods, and even had a snug where customers enjoyed a quiet drink. It did a thriving trade, and he employed two girls behind the counter.
“Are you going to the Halloween dance?” Tom asked Meg as they dawdled along behind Aisling and Michael, who were arguing as they often did, this time over the merits of David Bowie versus Gary Glitter.
“Not sure yet,” Meg answered, surprised. She hadn’t realised Halloween was so near. To be honest, she’d scarcely thought about going out at all. She’d been too busy trying to work out what made Hamlet tick and getting that quick smile from Miss Stewart or Harriet, as she secretly called her, to make any plans around going out socialising. Wild horses wouldn’t drag this admission out of her. They’d certify her as a complete twit if Bernie or Jo got hold of that one. She fixed her bag on her shoulder. And they’d probably be right. Still, receiving praise for her work was enough to turn her head a bit, she’d certainly never been singled out for praise by Old Clancy.
“You should,” Tom urged. “The Indians showband is brilliant, and the atmosphere will be unreal. You should have been there during the summer carnival. Wow!” He shook his head at the memory.
“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll go this time. You’re going, obviously?” She cocked an eye at him, and to her surprise, he avoided her gaze.
“Well, ah—” He stopped, red flushing across his face.
“What?” she asked, kicking a stone into the hedgerow.
“Well, I wondered if you might come with me, like.”
She stopped. “How do you mean, come with you?”
“Well, come with me, be my date for the night, I suppose.” He shrugged, trying without success to appear nonchalant.
Now Meg blushed. What kind of an idiot am I? “Well, I, I, erm…don’t know. I mean, I like you, but—”
“It’s grand, Meg.” He waved his arm around. “I’m not asking you to marry me or anything.”
Heat flooded into her face again. “No, of course not, Tom, yeah. Okay, let me think about it.”
“Great.” he beamed. He gestured ahead to where the other two were still in heated debate. “Useless, both of them,” he roared. “Willie Nelson is your man; sure, they’re only trotting after him.”
They both glared at him, united in disgust. He turned to Meg, winked, and began to whistle “Blue Eyes Singing in the Rain.”
Early Saturday evening Aisling, Jo, and Meg were sprawled on Meg’s big untidy bed. The smell of baking wafted up from the kitchen.
“So c’mon, tell us all,” Aisling said, her face alive with curiosity. “Did you go weak at the knees? Did your heart thump, fit to break out through your chest? C’mon, do tell; I’m dying to find out.”
Meg rolled her eyes. “Tom? Come on, you’ve been reading too many Mills and Boons. Doesn’t happen like that in real life.”
“Oh, but it does,” Jo said, her face wistful. She turned on her stomach and sighed.
Meg eyed the two of them, doubtfully. “Does it? Well, I’ve never experienced anything remotely like that.”
Aisling swung her legs off the bed and stared hard at Meg. “Well, what do you feel about it? You don’t have to go with him, you know. It’s no big deal saying no.”
“Oh, I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t feel anything much except stress.” She laughed. “Imagine, one of the nicest, best-looking lads in the parish asks me out, and I’m looking for excuses to say no.”
“You’ve gone out with a few lads though,” Aisling reminded her. “Did you never feel…special with any of them?
Meg chewed over the question for a moment. “No, I can’t say I did. I mean…I suppose being kissed is pleasant enough, but that’s about all. Like, my legs didn’t go weak or anything.”
Jo shot up. “God, remember John?”
“Dear God, will we ever forget him?” Aisling flung herself back against the pillow.
Meg closed her eyes in horror. John had been staying at O’Reilly’s last summer with his parents and two young sisters. They were distant cousins or something. They’d met at the local carnival, and he’d taken an immediate shine to her, pestering her to go out with him. Not bad looking, she supposed, but to her he simply made up one of the gang that summer. She finally gave in and agreed to go for a walk with him on the last weekend before he returned home to Waterford.
“I only went out with him because he kept pestering me. And boy, did I regret my decision!” She shook her head at the memory. “He talked nonstop about himself, all the girls he’d gone out with—”
“All the girls who were queuing up to go out with him,” Aisling mocked. “To listen to him talk, you’d think he was God’s gift.”
“When he tried to kiss me, yuk.” Meg, shuddered, feeling again his mouth, rough and moist, his teeth grinding against hers. As she had tried to push him away, he had roughly tugged at the end of her T-shirt. She had shoved him so hard he fell onto the grass, gaping up at her foolishly.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she’d yelled at him. “How dare you!”
She’d been so mad she’d stalked over and tore strips off him while he sat there open- mouthed, unable either to get up or get a word in edgeways. She had finished by giving him a slap across the face before stomping off without another glance.
At Aisling’s though, she’d bawled, shocked that he had tried to take advantage of her. Aisling had held her until she’d stopped crying apart from a few sniffles. Thankfully, they hadn’t seen John again before he had left for home, and this year, he hadn’t returned to O’Reilly’s at all.
There were a few others, but she had to admit none had made her tingle or her heart quicken. Unlike Jo, who fell in love at least once a term, with each relationship going to last forever. Well, according to her.
“Look, Meg,” Aisling said, inching closer on the bed, “why not tell Tom you’ll meet him there and play the whole thing down? You can always say you don’t want to be tied down, that you’d prefer his friendship, blah, blah, blah…all the usual platitudes from the Dear John handbook.”
They all laughed, and waited for her to answer. She considered for a minute.
“Yes,” she said, wagging her forefinger for emphasis, “that’s what I’ll do. He’s nice, but I don’t want to get into anything I’ll regret, and I don’t want to lose his friendship either. And that’s exactly what I’ll tell him.”
Aisling clapped. “C’mon so, let’s eat while the scones are fresh and the butter melts in your mouth.”
They jumped from the bed and dashed down to the kitchen, Meg’s dilemma with Tom forgotten—nothing on their minds now but Mrs Mitchell’s scrummy scones.