Tuesday 26 September 2017

Christmas magic

Cathy Kelly

Primrose Cottage sat at the very end of Johnson's Lane, an enchantingly pretty little house with rose bushes clustering up to peer in the windows.

It was owned by the Malone sisters, Dolores and Genevieve, and they were on first-name terms with the postman, Eddie, who often stopped at Primrose Cottage for a quick cup of tea of a morning.

Genevieve was the chattier, more outgoing of the sisters: older than her sister, Eddie thought, but more worldly and keen on wearing silver combs in her white hair. Dolores, who still had a hint of softest auburn in her hair, was shyer and more inclined to let Genevieve do the talking.

There was no place Eddie liked stopping better than at the Malone sisters'. Their home reminded him of how life used to be when he was a boy.

'You're wonderful, the pair of you,' Eddie would say, when he had a cup of tea in one hand and a bit of hot buttered scone in the other.

'Oh, it's nothing,' Dolores would reply. 'It's just what Mother used to do.'

'Yes,' agreed Genevieve. 'Mother always made her own bread, scones and jam, but she had the hens, too.'

Both sisters looked a little mournful at this recollection. Mother had always made them feel inadequate. She had been amazing, a domestic goddess long before such a term had been invented. Everyone over a certain age in Ardagh agreed: there had been nobody like Mrs Malone.

She was a powerful woman, people said, using the rural sense of the word, which conveyed strength and purpose. She had been on every committee going, a stalwart churchgoer, organiser of the church flowers and a woman with firm views no matter the subject.

There were a few people who felt that perhaps Mrs Malone had been a bit too powerful when it came to setting the ground rules for her daughters. And a really critical person might say that Dolores and Genevieve Malone were still a little under her thumb even though Vera Malone was long since dead and buried.

Her 'girls' might be cruising towards 70, but they still adhered to her strict rules and somehow, along the way, they'd never courted, never got married and never moved out of Primrose Cottage.

On that fateful morning in mid December, Eddie had a couple of flyers in his hand, at least one bill, and a large insulated package addressed in a wild scrawl to 'The Malones, Primrose Cottage, East Ardagh'. 'I wonder what this is?' said Eddie, who normally could tell with a single look. Packages from mail-order clothes companies, court summonses: he knew the feel of them all.

'Interesting,' said Genevieve, taking it from him.

She examined the package for a moment. It was heavy, a big solid thing, like a heavy book, perhaps, but they hadn't ordered any books. When they wanted something that Devine's bookshop didn't stock, they asked Mrs Devine to look it up on her computer and she'd order it for them. She'd then phone them when the book in question arrived. She'd never sent anything to the house before and even if she did, she'd hardly write 'The Malones' so rudely on it. Genevieve decided she'd open it and get to the bottom of the mystery when Eddie was gone.

After Eddie was gone, she eyed the big package on the kitchen table. It definitely looked like a book and Genevieve had absolutely no memory of ordering such a thing.

The package sat reproachfully at the other end of the table, as if daring her to open it.

That morning, Genevieve went about her normal chores, and waited until Dolores had taken the dogs out into the garden for a quick pre-lunch meander. Then she seized the big packet from the kitchen table. She opened the flap carefully and her fingers touched the hard covers of a book.

Where had it come from? Banishing the prospect of senility from her mind, Genevieve pulled the book from its covering.

She stared at it for a full moment in absolute stupefaction. It was no ordinary book.

Magic for Beginners was the title, written in dark green script on a background of what looked like Tudor embroidery in saffron yellows and rich olive greens. A book about magic. Where had this book come from? It definitely had their name on it and their address. There was no note from Devine's, and no return address on the back of the big padded envelope. But how else would such a book arrived at Primrose Cottage? There was nothing for it. She, Genevieve Malone, was losing her mind.

****

For a whole week, Genevieve kept the book hidden in the pantry cupboard at the very top, wrapped in an old scarf. But despite its being stashed away, the magic book haunted her thoughts. I am still here and you are losing your marbles, it seemed to be saying.

Genevieve phoned Devine's bookshop on Saturday morning, talked to Mrs Devine herself and had a most unsatisfactory conversation.

'No, there was no order here for you, Miss Malone,' insisted Mrs Devine. 'I have all your last orders and the most recent one was Tours of the Holy Land, which you picked up. Are you sure you couldn't have ordered it on the computer?'

'No,' said Genevieve sadly, 'I didn't.'

Genevieve put down the phone to Mrs Devine, her mind troubled.

Upstairs, Tours of the Holy Land lay on the small cabinet beside Genevieve's bed along with her rosary beads. She dipped into the book most nights, running her fingers over pages of pictures of the Wailing Wall and the dark, mystical cavern that was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She'd always wanted to travel but had never gone further than Dublin. She'd been to Galway once, nearly 50 years ago, to the wedding of her best friend, Mariah.

'It'll be you next,' Mariah had said joyfully the evening of her wedding when she was ready to leave the hotel, her trousseau packed and the bouquet ready to be thrown. Genevieve had caught the bouquet but there had been no wedding for her.

No trips abroad. When she was young enough to travel, her mother hadn't wanted her to. No local man had ever measured up to her mother's standards, either. . .

Genevieve Malone wasn't the sort of person who got angry, but a flicker of naked fury rippled through her now. She and Dolores would have liked a computer but Mother wouldn't have approved, so they didn't have one.

They'd have liked to travel but Mother didn't approve of that either. So they had gone nowhere, married no-one.

Now that she and Dolores were their own mistresses, their mother's likes and dislikes still guided them.

Genevieve grabbed the stool and hauled the magic book out of its hiding place.

'I don't care what you think, Mother,' she shouted, surprising both herself and Sidney, the cat. 'I want to look at it.' She placed the book on the table and opened it at the first page.

The book was not the heathen volume she'd expected. The introduction was a gentle ramble through history and the place that magic had in the world. Genevieve read of professional Egyptian magicians: of the burning of the library at Alexandria; and of Celtic, Italian, Romany and Jewish spells.

She, Genevieve Malone, would not take to wearing snake bracelets to ward off harm or ask a birch tree to yield up a piece of bark upon which to write a plea for a man to love her. Yet she felt a sneaking envy towards the sort of woman who would.

How would her life have been different if she'd rubbed beetroot all over her body to attract romance?

She thought wistfully about the one man she'd loved from afar, a gentle kind boy named Dermot, who'd left Ardagh without ever knowing that Genevieve Malone watched him walk up the church aisle on a Sunday, her grey eyes following his every move. What if she'd had the courage to disobey her mother then and speak to him?

She wrapped the book up in its scarf, put it up high again, and told Dolores she was off to the shops because they were low on milk.

When she was in the town itself she spotted Sybil Reynolds climbing slowly out of her car, fluffy white hair semi-captured by a knitted red hat. Sybil was 80 if she was a day and she was a keen traveller. Mother had never really liked Sybil or her mother.

'Far too flighty, those women are never off the road,' Mrs Malone had pronounced and that had been that.

Secretly, Genevieve and Dolores had envied Sybil her easy going ways. She'd married the handsomest man in the parish, had five children, and although Harry's mind was long since gone and he sat quietly in the nursing home, staring out into the world with blank blue eyes, Sybil had not given up her joie de vivre.

Suddenly, Genevieve had a fierce longing to talk to Sybil, a woman who'd never let anybody put a stop to her dreams. She'd bet Sybil's Christmas tree was a positive fire hazard with twinkling lights.

'Sybil!' roared Genevieve across the street, shocked at her own daring.

'Ladies never yell,' was another of Mother's dictums.

'Will you come to the cafe for a pot of tea with me?'

'I'd kill for a latte with a double blast of coffee in it,' said Sybil, beaming as she slammed the door of her Mini.

'Have you been to the Holy Land?' asked Genevieve when they were installed in a window seat of the cafe.

'Harry and I went twice,' Sybil said, a hint of a tear in her eye. 'I wish I could bring him to Italy with me in March, but he can't leave the nursing home.'

'You're going away?'

Sybil shot Genevieve a shrewd glance that said she was used to people expecting her to put her life on hold because her husband was in a nursing home.

'Harry and I talked about everything, Genevieve,' she said. 'Including what would happen when one of us died or if one of us got dementia. Harry said there was no point in us both being dead. The other one was not to sit shiva forever.'

'I'm sorry,' Genevieve said. 'Where are you going in Italy?'

Sybil shrugged expressively. 'Haven't set an absolute date yet.'

'And, er, is it with a group or something?'

'Just me.'

'You're so brave,' sighed Genevieve. 'I'd love to travel but I'd never have the nerve to go on my own.'

'Well, you've got Dolores to go with,' Sybil pointed out. 'And you're welcome to come with me, anytime you'd like.'

'Really?'

Sybil drank down her spirulina, grimacing as she did so. 'Supposed to keep you young, but it tastes awful.' She put the glass down. 'Are you saying you and Dolores would like to come to Italy with me?'

'Goodness no,' said Genevieve hastily. 'We wouldn't want to impose --'

'You wouldn't be imposing. I wouldn't ask if I didn't mean it,' Sybil replied.

She made it sound so simple. There were no hidden pitfalls in conversation with someone like Sybil, no chance of saying the wrong thing. Not like with Mother.

Genevieve decided to try normal conversation. 'You see, we've never travelled, never been anywhere,' she said. 'Mother didn't approve.'

Sybil's look of pity nearly made her stop but she kept going.

'I got this book by mistake during the week and it's making me think about things ... '

'What sort of book?' Sybil leaned forward with interest.

'Magic for Beginners. It was a mistake, we'd never ordered it from Devine's or anything,' Genevieve said hastily. 'I go to Mass and --'

'Genevieve, I am not your mother. I am not the judge and jury, either,' Sybil said. 'I'd love to get a look at that book. It sounds fabulous -- ' Her face broadened into a huge smile. 'There's Claudia, look.'

Genevieve turned to see the youngest of Sybil's brood, a woman with wild red hair and a smiling face.

'Sorry, Genevieve, we're off shopping today. Claudia's driving. Must fly. I'd love a look at that book of yours sometime.'

And she was gone.

Genevieve bought some milk and walked slowly up the hill to Primrose Cottage, wondering what her life would have been like if she'd been more like Sybil, more like the sort of person who'd buy Magic for Beginners and use it. Life was moving so fast away from Genevieve and she felt as if she had done nothing with hers. But she could always change that, couldn't she?

****

Dolores didn't like going away when the daffodils were still out.

'And what about the slugs?' she wanted to know. The garden would be ravaged by them.

Genevieve had heard variations on this theme every week since they'd booked the holiday with Sybil to the Holy Land.

'There's no right time to go away,' she told her sister now, looking up from her final checklist regarding passports, photocopies of passports, tickets and money. The taxi was coming in an hour to take them and Sybil to the airport. 'We have to trust that this is the right time for us, Dolores. It's going to be marvellous.'

'What if something goes wrong?' said Dolores, looking up at her sister with beseeching eyes like the dogs'.

'Sybil has travelled the world,' Genevieve said firmly. 'She'll know what to do if something goes wrong.'

'The problem with Sybil is that I think she'd quite like something to go wrong,' fretted Dolores. 'She's far too fond of adventure.'

Genevieve laughed. 'I'd quite like an adventure myself.'

****

On her bedside table lay Magic For Beginners, now well-thumbed. Genevieve thought she'd finally got to the bottom of the mystery of how it had ended up in her hands. There had been another Malone on the other side of Ardagh, it seemed. A Mrs Malone of West Ardagh. The man in the big post office had eventually uncovered this information.

She'd taken the car over to West Ardagh to find the mysterious Miss Malone and had come upon another Primrose Cottage, a tiny sliver of a house wedged between two fine new-builds. The old Genevieve might not have had the courage to ring the doorbell so firmly, or even to peer in the windows when nobody answered the door, but the newly courageous Genevieve had no such qualms.

Genevieve wrote a note on a piece of paper from her handbag and posted it through the letter box.

'Thank you for Magic For Beginners. I still have it if ever you need it. Fondest wishes, Genevieve Malone.'

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