The air brakes on the coach from Lisdoonvarna hissed below him. It wouldn’t be the first time today that he felt the experience of deflation; the only time he got lucky during this entire matchmaking festival weekend was at the bingo.
A man behind him hobbled down the aisle. He nodded and offered a tight smile as your man passed. Mickey’s gaze returned to the coarse fingers tangled together like nettles in his lap.
The bus jerked forward and Mickey grimaced, just as he had when each of the countless potholes rattled his old bones. 'Ye’d think the ride would shake some sense into yeh after all these years,' he thought to himself. Mickey was the last passenger as the deluxe coach clattered up the N17 toward Tuam.
“How was the weekend for ye?” the driver offered. “They were predicting this year’s matchmaking would be the mightiest one altogether.”
The last thing Mickey wanted to do was make small talk. He was just released from three days in a prison constructed entirely from the bars of his own insecurities and shyness.
His milky blue eyes had avoided the gaze of many a woman that stared down the bar in his general direction. His Pioneer oath swore him off the drink for life, which meant he couldn’t even drown his sorrows like the rest of the bachelor farmers that swayed to the beat laid down by a tinny drum machine and accordion.
“Fine,” he said. “Faith’n, ye wouldn’t know the place nowadays.”
“Not with all the quare fellas walkin’ around all arm and arm,” the driver huffed. “Two men throwin’ shapes at one another on the dance floor is somethin’ I’ll never get useta. They ruined a good matchmaking thing when they let that lot in.”
“Yerra, they aren’t harmin’ anyone,” Mickey replied. “They kinda bring a bit of life into the place, like. They deserve love like the rest of us, I suppose.”
The driver shrugged his shoulders then looked at him in the rearview mirror.
“So...did ye run into Miss Right?”
Mickey shook his head.
“Och, sure that girleen hasn’t been born yet and her mother’s dead,” he replied. That made the driver slap the steering wheel with a meaty palm and howl with laughter.
It was a lie, of course. That “girleen” was Maeve and she has been right under his nose for most of his life.
“Ye can do better than a hairdresser,” his mother said some 60 years ago, the last word of that damned sentence dripping curdled judgment into the mug of tea she stirred.
Mickey never went against his mother’s wishes. He broke it off with Maeve straight away and sentenced himself to a life of living with Mammy, trotting his brother’s Yank sons on the back of the old horse Tom every year, and pining for a family of his own. Tom joined his mother in the greener pastures of the afterlife last year and Mickey’s heavy heart weighed on his rib cage like a lead vest ever since.
Maeve would hold out for as long as she could before the bells on her biological clock were deafening. That old tomcat Paddy Finn sweet talked her into a marriage that would go on to produce three kids and a few grandchildren.
She looked happy enough whenever they nodded to one another in Tuam, but he could not shake the feelings of guilt in recent years when he heard the gossip at the bingo hall about the abuse Maeve suffered at the hands of this raging alcoholic. He found himself thanking God at Paddy’s coffin that Maeve’s suffering was over when he knew he should have been praying for the poor man’s troubled soul.
They made small talk about the mad water tax idea and how the property values were coming back in the west of Ireland, slowly but surely. Both Mickey and the driver made the sign of the cross when the bus passed his mother’s graveyard at the crossroads.
The brilliant autumn sunset painted the sky in strokes of pink and orange, which were in sharp contrast to the heavy grey clouds and the dark shadows cast by the cobblestone walls and tombstones. He heard the turn signal click as the bus made a right down his narrow boreen.
“Would it be any trouble to take me as far as the bingo hall in Abbeyknockmoy?” he asked.
“I really shouldn’t, Mickey,” the driver said, his voice trailing. “It’s not really on the route, like.”
“Aw g’wan,” Mickey pleaded. “I can’t face that cold and lonely house just yet. ‘Tis like a tomb in there when the sun goes down for an auld fella like me.”
“Ah, we will, so,” the driver replied. “Sure, the night is young and a man’s luck can change in a second.”
“With the help of God, anything’s possible.”
The wheels of the bus crushed the gravel in the parking lot. The driver waved to the bus that passed them; that would be the one that carried Mickey’s sister from Corbally to the bingo.
Mickey wiped the crumbs of bread from an earlier lunch that fell on his gray suit jacket and tucked the collar of a French blue shirt under his black sweater. Another bus blocked their view of the bingo hall as he made his way down the aisle and transferred a few euros into the palm of the driver as they shook hands.
He crossed the front grill of his bus and almost plowed into Maeve. The seconds passed by in slow motion between them.
He lowered his gaze.
“I’m well, Missus. Lovely night.”
She nodded and made her way toward the hall.
He watched her back for a long moment, his nerves like thumbs pressing the bile up to his esophagus like toothpaste through a tube.
“Maeve, I don’t suppose...”
She stopped in her tracks.
“Jaysis, Mickey, I thought you’d never ask,” Maeve replied. She didn’t bother turning around.
“Maybe we could grab some tea sometime?” he offered.
She turned and smiled; the years melted off her face.
“Och, sure there’s plenty of tea inside, isn’t there? Lots of prying eyes as well. Of course, we can get back on the bus you came in on and head to my house. The kettle is still warm on my stove.”
Mickey smiled sheepishly, leaned back, and gently knocked on the side of the bus.
The air brakes hissed below him once again and the door clattered open. The driver scurried down the steps to help Maeve to her seat.
When she was settled, he went back to the door and held his hand out to Mickey, whose calves were rubbery as he ambled up the first big step. Mickey gripped the hand rail to steady himself as the driver leaned into him.
“Bingo!” he whispered, rattling Mickey’s old bones once again with a hard slap on the back.