07 January 2013

In Prosperity and Adversity – a short story

The following short story was first published in True to Type: A Collection of Short Stories by Journalists in the Irish Times, edited by Fergus Brogan (Dublin: Irish Times Books and Sugarloaf Publications, 1991).

The 18 short stories in this collection were written by Maeve Binchy, Deaglán de Bréadún, Fergus Brogan, Declan Burke-Kennedy, Patrick Comerford, Joe Culley, Mary Cummins, Kieran Fagan, Brendan Glacken, Tom Glennon, Mary Maher, Seamus Martin, Mary Morrissy, Eugene McEldowney, Noel McFarlane, Padraig O’Morain, Arthur Reynolds and Paddy Woodworth.

The book, published in December 1991, was introduced by Dick Walsh and was illustrated with cartoons by Martyn Turner. The book was dedicated to the memory of our late colleague, the Revd Stephen Hilliard, who was murdered in Rathdrum Rectory, Co Wicklow, on 9 January 1990. All proceeds from the sale of the book were donated to the Revd Stephen Hilliard Trust Fund.

In Prosperity and Adversity

Patrick Comerford

IT must have Peter, while we were still children, who first took to calling him the White Rabbit. One given, the name stuck. That afternoon, Canon Phillips looked every bit the White Rabbit: hid thin, white hair fell limply around his pink face; his pink, shell-rimmed glasses failed to disguise his blood-shot, weak eyes; a full, long and starched white surplice almost totally covered his cassock, and a broad, creamy, white stole had been donned especially for Peter’s wedding.

The White Rabbit stood before us, squat, rigid, and drumming his right fingers on the Prayer Book he was keeping open in his left palm, occasionally muttering the opening sentences of the service, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered...,” as if rehearsing the wedding to himself, or testing to see if he could remember all the words.

“I understand the propriety of a bride wanting to be late,” he intoned, impatient that he had to interrupt himself.”Five minutes, ten at the most. But” – and he hissed as he looked at the clock at the west end of the church – “sixteen minutes seem extravagant.” Nervously, I nudged Peter; there might have been a knowing grin in his facial reply, except he was still anxious and upset.”

It all came to a climax the previous evening. As Peter’s best man, I had put a lot of thought into planning the stag night he wanted. He never took to Dublin stags in sleazy, smoky pubs that ended in disreputable night-clubs, and so he had planned for weeks to come home with my brother Rick in time for a proper night on the old town.

The Bohemian Girl ... the bar in White’s ... The Eagle Bar ... Con Macken’s and the Cape ... Jack Fane’s and Tommy Roche’s ... Rick wanted t prove there were more pubs on the Quay side of Main Street, “so they could roll the barrels off the ships straight into the basements.” But by the time we reached the Tower Bar in our pilgrimage through the pubs of the Bull Ring and the Main Street, Rick was too drunk to restate the finer points of his history lesson, and I was sure Peter was drawn and pale only because he had five too many. It wasn’t much to worry about, we had all experiences similar feelings in the rugby club on many of our more youthful weekends.

But just as I thought it was time to move on to the Commodore, Peter was missing. I slipped quietly from the bar, which Rick was grabbing solidly with his left hand as he held a fresh pint up to his mouth with his right. “Tell us, John, is it true you spent your snag tight ...?” He started to reminisce, but wasn’t even finishing his questions, and I thought Peter must be feeling sick if he had to spend that much time away from the two of us. I headed for the basement, wondering whether he had gone down to the men’s loo, but as I opened the bar door into the side hallway I could hear his quiet, sober, worried voice on the phone at the lunge door.

“Yes June, thanks... No, I understand... Please...don’t...I’m sorry, I am sorry.” Then he caught me in the corner of his eye. “I must go now, June, thanks... Yes, I do... I really am sorry.” But there was no “See you later,” no “I love you.”

Quietly, he hung up the phone, turned to me and pleaded: “John, I don’t feel like going on.” But he didn’t look into my face as he begged, almost sobbed: “Can we go back to your place? I’m not on for any more drinking.”

I poked my head back around the bar door. “Rick, follow us back up to my place, will you? Peter and I are going on ahead.”

Rick still had more than half a pint in his hand; I could take Peter away and find out what was troubling him before Rick realised it. As we headed out the side door and began to make our way up Rowe Street, Peter still looked pale. “There’s no point in going back to my place if you’re feeling like that. Do you want some fresh ir along the Quay? And you can tell me what’s bothering you.”

We doubled back silently, passed on down Church Lane between Saint Iberius and the Foresters’ Hall, and down the side of the car park. Peter said nothing as we crossed over the road onto the wooden-works and the trainline and began to make our way down the Quays. It was still bright, and orange streaks were beginning to break through the evening clouds over the harbour. The only sounds as we walked along Commercial Quay and Custom House Quay were a few passing cars, the birds hovering on the harbour water, and a handful of children playing around the ropes of the Guillemot moored against the Quay Wall.

We reached the Crescent before I started to ask any questions. “Well Pete, what’s the problem? Has June got butterflies? Is she having second thoughts?”

“Well, no, not exactly.”

“Not exactly? So there is a problem?”

“Well, of sorts. Look, you’ll stand beside me tomorrow, John, won’t you?”

“What do you think I am?” I asked. “Is there some problem between you and June? Do you want me to run you over to her place in the car?”

“No, no don’t, please.”

“It’ll only take ten or fifteen minutes.”

“No,” he insisted.

Now we were facing each other in the car park beside the gas works in Trinity Street, opposite the Talbot, and I still hadn’t rumbled what was wrong. “Look Peter, if you and June have some problem, you’d better sort it out now. Because, tomorrow is going to be too late.”

I wasn’t prepared for what he said next: “John, we have talked it out. We’re not getting married.” He looked away from me and out towards the Ballast Bank and the breakwater. “Not tomorrow. Not ever.”

I PEERED down at the mud in the Crescent as Peter told me a story I had never prepared myself to hear. On the way down from Dublin with Rick, it had dawned on him slowly that although he and June were the best of friends, “I just couldn’t honestly say I was in love. I had to face up to that before it was too late.”

With arms swinging slowly, limply, over the rusty rails, he went on to explain his absence once we had arrived in the Tower Bar. “By then, I had plucked up enough courage to ring her an explain that although I liked her a lot, that I would always see her as a really close friend, I knew I wasn’t ready to go ahead with getting married, not now and not with her.”

I wanted to ask him if he was just suffering from pre-marital jitters, but he continued to talk without any prompting.

“I told her I was sorry, and that I couldn’t think of how to apologise. And you know what? She just told me she understood. She promised we’d stay friends, and said she’s look after explaining everything to her family later on. That, and sending back our wedding presents as well.”

“What then?”

“Oh, we’ll meet back in Dublin next week and sort all that out – what to do about the deposit and the builders, keeping on the flat, and all those things. She just asked me for one favour before then.”

“And what’s that?” I asked, torn between my cynicism, my anger, my feelings about how lost and lonely June must have been that evening, and my loyalty to Peter.

“She wanted to know would we keep it quiet, and just turn up in Church tomorrow afternoon.”

“She what?” I didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”

“Well, she pointed out that if started trying to call off the wedding now, at this time of the night, everyone would panic, and we’d have to explain to her mother that I’d called it off. There’s be a row, and we’d have t wait months before sorting things out with the bank and the house. And she’d always have the reputation of being jilted.”

That was typical of Peter – practical down to the last detail, whatever the emotional feelings. I felt more sorry for June than for Peter, even if he was my cousin.”

“Well,” I suggested with resigned if sorry feelings, “I suppose it’s much easier for a man to say he was left at the altar because she had bad nerves, than it is for someone like June to live with the name of being a jilted woman.”

“Exactly, that’s just how June put it. She said we could just turn up in St Machta’s, pretend nothing’s happened, and when the car arrived at her house she’d tell her mother she couldn’t go through with it, pretend she’d been having second thoughts for a long time, that sort of thing.”

I thought Peter was being a coward, leaving all that for June to carry with her for the next eighteen hours, but all I could blurt out was: “The White Rabbit will be ripping mad.”

“I know. June said he’d told her she could be late, five minutes late, but no more. She says when it comes to twenty past, you can tell Canon Phillips she mustn’t be coming. She knows his bad temper will be enough to let him believe the whole thing should be called off.”

Now he had to put an extra burden on me too. But soon I was thinking: “Poor Peter.” I hadn’t realised what he’d been going through. But from the way he told it, it sounded as if June was a better friend than either Rick or I had been to him since we were children.

“Let’s go back to the Tower Bar and collect Rick,” I said. And Peter made a last request: “Not a word to Rick either, please.”

When we found Rick, he was deep in conversation about election promises, the trade union movement, and the collation. None of it made sense, and he hardly even noticed we’d been gone for 40 minutes. “I want to go on to the Commodore,” he protested. “I won’t finish drinking until we reach the Stone Bridge. Or even better, the Talbot Hotel.” He was triumphant, but he left calmly and mildly when we insisted it was time to go. It was dark as all three of us headed up Rowe Street and back to my place.

HAVING crossed the front of the church and crossed it again at least four times in as many minutes, Canon Phillips was back in front of us again. This time his patience had turned to anger, and his face was flushed with rage.

“Well, does the groom have anything to say for himself or his bride? It’s now getting after twenty past and I can’t see why I should be left standing all afternoon. I’m a retired man now, you know. I’m only doing this as a special favour for your family. Has the best many anything to say in your defence?”

I looked at Peter, who was beginning to relax. I could see relief in his eyes as he began to accept that June was not turning up. What a friend he had in her. Few men have wives who are friends like that, I thought, as I looked at the White Rabbit and began to speak up for Peter.

“Er, eh, Canon Phillips, I think I should... ”

“Should nothing my man,” he quipped back, looking straight down the nave. Rick still had a hangover and noticed nothing, but Peter and I were stunned as we turned our heads in disbelief. There, hand looped trough her brother’s arm, steadily making her way up though the pews, was June.

Before we could even turn back and catch each other’s eye, the organist was playing and Canon Phillips assumed a glad voice and feigned informality as he started to intone from his Prayer Book: “Dearly beloved, we gathered together in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this Man, Peter, and this Woman, June, in holy...”

Photographs of Wexford: Patrick Comerford

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