Tuesday 22 October 2019

Sepia

Monica Corish

I still have the photograph of a man and a woman who were scarcely more than a boy and a girl. Frank is standing behind me in his brown suit, which I remember was brown, not made brown by the sepia fading of the photograph. His collar is buttoned high, and I am wearing a high-necked striped work blouse, tucked in to my high-waisted skirt. The look on his face is so proud -- I remember that look -- and his right hand is resting on my left shoulder. Sweet God in Heaven, I remember that moment.

I had met Frank the autumn before the travelling photographer came to the island, one lunchtime when I was working in Mrs Ring's post office shop in Knightstown. I used to fill in there for an hour every day. My mother liked the arrangement, because I was in the village most days anyway, to buy messages or to sell eggs. And because, instead of paying me, Mrs Ring let us buy from the shop at cost price.

On the first day we exchanged only the words of business, but I remember noticing his accent, and his astonishing fair hair, only a few shades darker than white. No one on our island had hair that colour, the same colour as the fine, pale sand on Beiginis where I used to swim as a girl. The rest of that week he came in every day, at lunchtime, to get matches, candles, to buy stamps, to post letters to his family. I noticed the unusual surname on the envelopes, Corish, and the addresses, scattered all around the rim of Ireland. I knew by then that he was a lightkeeper out on Tearaght, so I supposed his people were in the same business. And then, all of a sudden, he was gone.

And then he was back, six weeks to the day he left, into the shop looking for stamps for his letters home, and again the next day, for matches. Mrs Ring came in just as he was leaving and muttered about how that boy must have a sieve for a brain, the way he's in here every day looking for something or other, but she was smiling into the till as she said it.

And so it went on, our gentle, unspoken courtship, broken by his six weeks away on Inis Tearaght, resumed on his one week of return. I cannot remember a single thing we talked about, only that my heart lifted when he walked into the shop, and missed him when he wasn't there. I don't know why he didn't ask me to walk out with him. Maybe he was simply shy, as I was shy. I don't know. Whatever the reason, we continued as we were, both knowing but neither speaking of the growing warmth between us.

And then the travelling photographer came to the island and set up his wares in the lobby of the Royal Hotel, across the road from Mrs Ring's, where I could see all the comings and the goings and the excitement. He gathered all the spider plants from the windowsills into one place, so that we, the windswept residents of Valentia, looked like we lived on a tropical island. And he covered a section of the crimson-flocked wallpaper with a pale silk sheet that I longed to touch, the same colour as Frank's hair.

It was one of Frank's weeks of shore relief, and he came into the shop with a fierce and serious look in his eye. I remember wondering what ailed him. And then he said it, bluntly: "Will you have your photograph taken with me?" I felt a rush of blood that spread from my toes to the crown of my head. And I, shy careful I, said yes. Just like that. "I'll be finished here in 10 more minutes. I'll meet you then, inside the hotel." And he smiled like a lighthouse.

I wanted to go home and change into my Sunday clothes, but I knew that if I did I'd never get out again. The photographer arranged us, me sitting in a straight-backed chair, Frank standing behind me and to my left. The photographer had already put his head beneath the black hood of the camera when I felt Frank's hand on my shoulder, light but burning through the fabric of my summer blouse. I think I may have stopped breathing. And then the photographer's voice saying "hold it", and the very bright flash. Frank left his hand there for one second longer, then lifted it away. I turned around to look at him, and now my smile was like a lighthouse. But what I said was I must go home now. I will see you tomorrow. And he nodded, yes, and turned to pay.

My mother had heard by the time I got home, I had had my photograph taken with the young lighthouse keeper. It was an island, what did I expect? The wonder was that she hadn't heard before. News travels faster than footsteps here, no one knows how, only that it does. I remember what she said: "Don't go developing a ghrá for him. Just don't do it, girl. There's no use to it, we need you here. You can't marry a keeper and help on the farm and mind your father, and me when I need minding, for all that it's a well-heeled job. They are travelling men, for all their uniforms and their pensions, and you cannot be a travelling wife. So let that be an end to it."

I remember how she turned from me then, her lips closed tight as a trap, to fill the kettle and stoke the range. And I said nothing. I had never learned to fight, and I knew I couldn't fight them on my own. I might have been able to do it if he had been by my side. But he would be gone most of the time, out on Tearaght six weeks or more, or gone completely, transferred to some far-flung corner of Ireland. And for all the strength of the lightkeeper's dwellings that ran along the seafront in Knightstown, for all that they stood for and how excellent the world would consider the match, I knew it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough to make me strong in the face of my father's illness and my mother's need, and the grim straight line of her mouth.

The next day he came into the shop with the photograph in one hand and an open letter in the other. I took the photograph, but I looked at the letter. I skimmed: Dear Mr Corish, the Commissioners are pleased to inform you ... following your successful ... urgent need ... your effects will be forwarded ... I skimmed until my eyes tripped over the words Aran Island South. It was a world away. I looked up at him then and he said, "Marry me". But I shook my head, no, I can't. They won't let me go. And he said, with all the sureness of a young man, they will. "They will. I will persuade them."

I agreed to let him walk out to the farm with me, the whole island watching, although I knew it would do no good. My mother greeted him with a terrible politeness. My father sat with his two canes and his useless legs in his chair by the fire. I sat outside, on the bench under the window, waiting. And Frank sat with a tiny porcelain cup in his hand, juggling cake and plate and spoon and sugar and saucer. I didn't hear him ask the question -- he had a quiet voice at the best of times -- but I heard her answer: "No ... I am sure you understand ... Under other circumstances ... It will work out for the best ... You are both young ..." And I heard my father's silence. Then there was Frank's voice again, a second time, and a third. After the third "No" he rose and shook their hands and walked out the door, and we walked together down the lane to the road. I put my arm through his, knowing she was watching. It was my one and only rebellion. When we had passed the hawthorn tree and had come to the gate, hidden from the house, he turned and kissed me. It was the sweetest moment of my life.

Then he walked on, alone, back to the village, and I returned to the house. The back door was open -- she had gone out, to the haggard for turf. As I reached to get my apron my father took my left hand in his and kissed it and said I am sorry. Then she came back in and began to feed the fire, and I turned to peel the potatoes, and nothing more was said.

I went to Mrs Ring's shop the next day -- I thought about not going, but I could not bear the house -- and he came into the shop as before, buying provisions for his great journey to the north, and now we were like two kind strangers to each other. And so it was for the rest of the week, with the island watching. The ferry was already waiting down at the pier when he came in on the last day. Mrs O'Connell was in the shop, buying flour, but when she saw Frank she made some excuse and left. He took my two hands in his across the counter and said I will not forget and I said we have the photograph, and then he squeezed my hands and was gone. Although it was the lunch hour, Mrs Ring came into the shop to watch with me. She put her hand against my lower back and held it there as the ferry pulled away from the pier, and all the people on board became smaller and smaller, until I couldn't see their faces anymore.

And then, after 59 years, I heard his name again, last week. I had driven into the village to buy stamps when I overheard two fishermen talking about a new banker who had arrived in Cahirciveen, the market town on the mainland. Corish. Apart from that one Labour Party politician, it was a name I hadn't heard spoken since Frank had left the island. So I drove home and took down my hat from the box over the wardrobe, and put on my good coat, and drove back into Knightstown to catch the ferry to the mainland, and then the bus into the town.

It wasn't my bank -- my family had always used the other bank in the town -- but I went in anyway and told the porter that I wished to speak to the manager. I wasn't waiting more than two minutes when a tall fair man came toward me, so like Frank I nearly said his name. He brought me into his office and said, after the usual pleasantries about the weather:

-- "So, Mrs O'Sullivan, what can I do for you?"

-- "It's Miss O'Sullivan," I said. "Miss. Your name, I said. I heard your name. It's not usual around here."

-- "That's true," he said. "It's a Wexford name. It's common enough in that part of the country."

-- "I was wondering, were you anything to a Frank Corish, a lighthouse keeper?"

-- "Why yes," he said. "He was my uncle. But he died a few years ago. You knew him?"

-- "I did. It was a long time ago, long before you were born. It was when he was stationed out on Tearaght. And tell me, did he ever marry?"

-- "No," he said. "He never married." He smiled at some memory. "Frank would have made a fine father. He was a good uncle to us. He was a good man."

-- "He was," I said. "He was a lovely man."

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