|An 'Open' sign hangs in the window of a general store|
Mrs. Doyle owned the tiny shop toward the bottom of the main street. A general store from another era, by the time I was old enough to go in on my own it had a faintly aniseed aroma, as though it were preserving itself.
She was old, and by Donegal standards she wasn’t nice. I had never heard her offer a sharp word to anyone, but I couldn’t recall hearing her offer a kind one either. In my town that got you noticed.
She was practical they said, because her manner needed explanation. She confined herself to commerce, and sure why not?
The first sign of her pragmatism was her decision, taken decades earlier, to keep everything on display in her shop behind glass cases. That meant you had to point to whatever you wanted. Bread, sweets, cigarettes, Mass cards, miraculous medals – all the paraphernalia of rural Irish life – would only come to your pointing hand.
Deluxe items like thin silver crosses and Tara brooches and Belleek china were displayed on purple velvet in the cases furthest from the front door. Only the Yanks enquired about those.
A bell would ring from whenever you walked in. That sound would coax her from an adjoining room that was hidden by a damask curtain.
I loved the theatricality of it, the rustic temple guardian roused by another supplicant. I don’t know what it says about me, but from the age of 10 I liked to pop in and luxuriate in all that ruination.
There was something unlikely about her, like finding an old butter churn in a Dunnes Stores. I simply liked the surprise of her, which never faded.
Other things -- she wore wellingtons indoors, she was always in black for some reason. She took no trouble with her hair, it was a fright.
Most other teenagers I knew at the time passed by her shop without seeing it. For them it had already faded into ancient time.
I would get stared at if I suggested to my friends that we pop in a Choc Ice or a Coca-Cola. Her time had ended, their expressions told me, don’t be annoying us. I might as well have suggested we all buy a hoola-hoop.
There was something unforgettable in the way she looked at people, I recall. The moment you entered her shop you could feel a keen intelligence assessing you, but indifferently, without malice or grace.
You had simply agreed to perform a commercial transaction, her look told you. It was as impersonal as a one pound note.
I must admit it’s not for any of these things that I remember her, though. There was something else. Something that happened one summer afternoon in her shop.
I had popped in to buy an Aero on my way to the shorefront, but a collection man had reached her first. A sign on his suit said he was collecting for famine relief in Africa. Since he was known in the community, it was a legitimate request.
“You’d be one of the Duffys from the Back Hill,” old Mrs. Coyle told the man. It was a statement, not a question. He nodded.
“I knew your mother, right enough,” she said. It seemed to me the temperature in the little shop was plummeting, although my memory probably adds that now.
“You’ve a bit of a neck on you coming in here Michael Duffy,” she said evenly. “Are you having a wee laugh to yourself? Is that it, hah?”
The man looked confused and offended. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Oh indeed you do. So you can take yourself and your tin collection box and your big long face out the door and that’ll be the end of you,” she said.
The man looked thunderstruck. Old Mrs. Doyle looked resolute.
They blinked at each other. He turned and left.
She looked at the space where he had stood for a moment, and then she turned and looked at me.
“His grandfather bought a farm from mine and it was a bad job and it never came right for a one of us from that day to this. And that’s why I’m still here working and he’s out there tormenting the whole town with his hand out just like his grandfather before him,” she said.
She seemed to believe the squabble between their grandparents had given her life its character. Some long ago slight or cheat that had been handed down all the generations, long decades after its principal players had been interred.
I was riveted by their confrontation and I often thought of it. What the hell was all that about, I wondered?
Much later I learned that when you don’t have much, you can take offense at much, because you can’t walk between the raindrops like the rich do. They can dust themselves off, but you’ll be marked for life.
You’ll be left behind to marinade in your lost chance, which you may hand on, like a phantom inheritance. Generations of the Irish were raised like this, and they died like this too.