The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
Miss Agnew, the perfect but lonely daffodil lady
Posted on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 09:16 PM
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The daffodils come again. They are tall and greenly elegant, their yellow heads held haughtily high. Their long sharply-edged foliages are designer gowns.
They stand out from their surroundings. As always they look somehow lost and lonesome against the blanched commonality of their backgrounds of bare briars, stripped thorn hedges, tufts of lifeless grass, leafless trees.
The daffodils come again, and I think of tall Miss Agnew and all her sisterhood of the small towns of rural Ireland. And I sigh a small sigh.
If you were born into that Ireland you knew Miss Agnew too and all her counterparts. You know why she is locked into my memory bank as a Daffodil Lady.
There is a chilly niche in Irish social history where the Daffodil Ladies exactly fit. I rather fancy that the sisterhood actually exists in many of the peasant cultures like ours throughout Europe.
Most of them have our class system to some extent, sometimes more rigidly defined even than ours. Most of them surely have the equivalent of our predatory Gombeen Man that runs the town and owns everything.
Accordingly they must also have their Miss Agnews. She was typical of them all.
She was the chemist's daughter, an only child. The chemist was among the town's small corps of professionals. She was born into that.
She could not play on the street like the other children. When they were playing like that, laughing the rooves, she was at elocution classes or maybe piano lessons. Always somehow lonesome looking despite the prettiness that would soon become real beauty.
She was tall and blonde. She was sent away to boarding school at second level. Her picture appeared in her golden teens in The Irish Times coverage of the elitist Royal Dublin Horse Show.
It was said she won piano-playing competitions in Dublin. She studied to become a music teacher and passed with honors.
She came back home as her parents aged and, naturally, walked into a teaching job at the local convent school where she had been educated. She had a new little black Morris Minor car when no other girl of her age in the town had one.
She always dressed elegantly on the conservative side. When she wore pearls you knew they were real.
In her late twenties they said she was the most beautiful woman in the whole county. They were probably right.
It is in the matrimonial stakes that the Daffodil Ladies of the small Irish towns are brutally disadvantaged. There are very few suitable partners available to them.
There are very few farmers with more than the necessary hundred plus acres, and anyway farmers tend to marry their own class. Legal practices are small and dynastic so there are few solicitors. Doctors are few and tend to be married when they come to town.
In Miss Agnew's prime, about the only bankers who came to town were wild ones from the cities serving punishment terms. Male teachers, being generally careful men, somewhat timid too, were normally too inhibited to launch a courtship effort against such a formidable lady.
Handsome Gardai (police) had to be at least at sergeant rank to be considered as a partner. There were few suitable partners indeed.
Miss Agnew had formal relationships with a young doctor, a veterinary surgeon, two young bankers and a commercial traveler down the years. None of them developed into anything serious.
The real love of her life since childhood was one of the boys who played on the street and sat two desks away in primary school. His name was Johnny Mulgrew, and the most daring act of her life was kissing him one summer holiday when home from boarding school, behind the sand dunes of the resort.
When Johnny Mulgrew smiled his whole face lit up, and so did her heart. But Johnny was only a mechanic and had a big black motorbike instead of a car.
So socially it was not possible no matter what her heart said. Johnny also wore leather jackets and was harum-scarum, and had a different girl on his pillion every night of the summer season.
He married one of the girls who also played on the street and built up a good garage and a happy life. Today when her cars refuse to start Miss Agnew calls him. He comes and repairs the problem, and then they have a cup of coffee in the kitchen.
He is now a father and grandfather even. He is happy, and when he smiles his whole face still lights up.
And so still does her heart. But his hands are oily and rimed underneath the nails.
She plays golf. She plays bridge. She is a devout Catholic and the church organist. She is a member of all the church committees.
When she dresses the big altar it is always classically done, far more spare and dignified than when the girls who once played on the street do the decoration. They smother the altar with masses of bright red roses and carnations and flowers like that.
She uses dignified, tall pure lilies with long necks and daffodils in season. You would know that.
She plays the organ for weddings. Her music is precise and accurate, but without any kind of passion at all.
She is still a virgin. When her parents died she employed a (married) chemist to operate the pharmacy. She has little enough connection with the business now.
She retired from teaching about a decade ago. She lives alone in the house on the square.
She has a lady cat called Felicity Bridget that is neutered and wears a real silver bell around her neck. Felicity Bridget sleeps regally on the streetside windowsill and is much loved.
Miss Agnew is over 70 now. Her youthful beauty has marinated into silvery elegance.
She normally has her Sunday lunch alone in the hotel on the hill. Usually she has chicken.
Nobody can drink a cup of tea as elegantly as Miss Agnew, nobody at all. The little finger crooked just so.
She is fragile enough nowadays. Her table is against the big window overlooking the town. When the sun shines strongly it almost seems to shine through her.
She is highly respected in the town but has few real friends. She will die in her bed some night in the next 15 years and will not be discovered until some neighbor takes heed of the ringing of hungry Felicity Bridget's small real genuine silver bell.
Miss Agnew is just one of the many Daffodil Ladies of small town Ireland. She is one of the two or three out of every 10 of her class who were not fortunate enough to meet and marry a suitable husband.
Had she done so she would have made a mighty and happy mother and wife. She would have a bigger waistline and less designer clothing, but she would have had much more than dignity to live with all the days of her life.
And her music would have been infused with that at weddings. And her heart would know what it is like to light up most days like Johnny Mulgrew's face.
There are still thousands of Miss Agnews in the nooks and crannies of rural Ireland. I think of them each spring when the daffodils come again.