Read the first chapter of An Irish Doctor in Peace and at War, the latest novel in Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country series, publishing in October.
Chapter 1: A Rose by Any Other Name
Someone was ringing the front doorbell of Number One, Main Street, and insistently at that. Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly was eating a solitary lunch of cold roast ham, hard- boiled eggs, and salad while his partner, Doctor Barry Laverty, was out on an emergency home visit. “Coming,” O’Reilly roared, put down his knife and fork and, grabbing his sports jacket from the back of a chair, headed for the front hall. His house keeper, Kinky Kincaid, usually answered the door but today she was preparing for her wedding the following day.
The noon sun brightened the afternoon, but even its late- April radiance could add little lustre to the full vestments of Mister Robinson, the Presbyterian minister, who stood at the doorway wringing his hands. His rusty black robes, O’Reilly thought, made the man look like a dishevelled crow. “Yes, Your Reverence? What’s up?”
“Doctor, can you come across to the church at once? Please?”
“Somebody sick?” O’Reilly asked, shrugging into his jacket. “I’ll get my bag.” He turned, but was forestalled by the minister grabbing an arm.
“Nobody’s sick, but the war of the roses is breaking out in my church. There’s a row and a ructions, and I don’t know what to do. Please come. If anybody in Ballybucklebo can stop it, it’s you.” He turned, trotted down the short gravelled drive, and was forced by a lorry heading from Bangor to Belfast to wait for O’Reilly to catch up. As soon as there was a gap in the traffic, the minister hurried across the road to the church with O’Reilly trailing behind.
“What row?” O’Reilly asked, catching his breath as they passed under the lych-gate.
“Maggie Houston and Flo Bishop.”
“Who? Maggie and Flo?” O’Reilly frowned as they passed into the shadow of the old yews in the graveyard. “But they’re old friends, for G—” Better not say “God’s sake.” His frown deepened. “I think,” he said, stopping in his tracks, “you’d better explain before we go in.”
Mister Robinson sighed. “The ladies of the Women’s Guild take it in turns on a weekly rota to look after decorating the church for services and ceremonies. Maggie Houston’s on the duty this week. Because we all know Kinky’s fondness for wildflowers, Maggie’s got them by the great gross—”
“For the wedding tomorrow.”
“Correct, but Flo Bishop, being matron of honour, even though it’s not her turn to do the flowers, has assumed responsibility for decorating the church with hot house roses because she says Kinky deserves the very best. She’s formed a subcommittee with Aggie Arbuthnot and Cissie Sloan. Maggie whipped up support from Jeannie Jingles and Alice Moloney and . . .”
“And you have two regiments going at it hammer and tongs? The wildflower fusiliers and the red-rose rifles, right?”
“Right. Mrs. Bishop and her gang have commandeered the communion table and choir area and Maggie and their friends have placed themselves strategically—”
“Say no more.” O’Reilly, while being sympathetic to the minister’s dilemma, was having great difficulty controlling an enormous grin. “Lead on, Macduff,” he said. “This is something I’ve got to see.”
“Thank you, Doctor. They won’t listen to me. But you’ll make them see sense.”
O’Reilly followed the minister until they reached the nave, where the perfume of flowers was overpowering even the dust of two hundred years that usually haunted the old building.
On Maggie’s side, heaps of freshly plucked wildflowers were piled on the front pew. Roses on the opposite side of the aisle formed Flo Bishop’s ammunition dump.
The two groups, led by their respective champions, stood facing each other at the top of the nave.
“You’ll do no such thing, Maggie MacCorkle—”
“It’s Mrs. Houston to you, Mrs. Bishop.”
Both women stood facing each other, arms akimbo, eyes afire, leaning forward, chins jutting. Flo’s teeth were clenched and there she had Maggie Houston née MacCorkle at a disadvantage. The older woman wasn’t wearing her false ones, and clenched gums were less than threatening.
Lord, O’Reilly thought, harking back to his boxing days, And in the blue corner at one hundred and eighty pounds . . . “Ladies,” he said. “Ladies, whatever seems to be the trouble?”
He could make no sense of all the women’s voices speaking at once, but made a shrewd guess about what was being said.
“All right, all right,” he said, “now settle down. Settle down.” He waited as Flo smoothed her dress as a just-pecked mallard duck would waggle her tail feathers.
Maggie adjusted her hat. It had a single wilted bluebell in its brim.
“Can we not sort this out like the civilised people we are?” he said.
Flo glowered at Maggie. Maggie folded her arms across her chest. Their supporters closed ranks behind their principals.
“All right,” said O’Reilly, “let me see if I can get this straight. Maggie. Maggie?”
“Yes, Doctor O’Reilly.”
“You and your friends love Kinky and you want her day to be perfect, don’t you?”
“We do, so we do, but,” Maggie turned her frowning face sideways to Flo Bishop, “thon Flo—”
O’Reilly cut her off . “Flo, you and Aggie and Cissie feel the same way but think you know a better way to make Kinky’s wedding day shine?”
Flo glowered and said, “Me and the ladies do love Kinky and she told me that on the night Archie proposed he give her red roses and that’s why—”
O’Reilly cut her off too. He wanted no more petrol poured on the flames. “Whoa,” he said, “whoa, calm down and pay attention, the lot of you.” It wouldn’t hurt to throw his weight around just a little bit at the beginning. Take control. “Now listen. I think I know Kinky Kincaid better than anyone in the village and townland. Wouldn’t you all agree?”
Subdued murmuring of assent.
“Good. And just so we’re all clear, can we agree again that we love Kinky?”
Flo scowled at Maggie, who scowled right back.
“Ladies?” O’Reilly put an edge of steel in his voice. “Are we all agreed?”
“I am,” Cissie Sloan said. “I mind the day she first come til the village, so I do. No harm til you, Doctor dear, but it was way before your time, sir. It was a Wednesday— no, I tell a lie it was a Friday, and she—”
First defection on Flo’s side, O’Reilly thought, but let’s not have Cissie ramble on too much.
“Houl your wheest, Cissie Sloan,” Jeannie Jingles said, but with a smile. “We all remember her coming and it doesn’t matter a jot or tittle exactly when. What Doctor O’Reilly says is true. There’s not a woman in the whole townland more widely respected.”
A breakaway from solidarity with Maggie. “And what,” said O’Reilly, “if the respected Kinky was a fly on the wall here today. What do you reckon she’d be thinking about all these silly selfish schoolgirl shenanigans?”
He waited, quite prepared to re- ask the question, but Cissie had started the rent in the fabric of Flo’s group.
“I think,” said Aggie Arbuthnot, tearing it further, “she’d be sad to see her friends falling out over nothing, and,” her voice cracked, “I’d not want for Kinky to be unhappy about nothing on her wedding day.” She sighed. “It would be a right shame if she was, so it
“You’re dead on, Aggie.” Jeannie Jingles spoke for the opposition. “You just said a mouthful.” She smiled.
“I’ll give you my twopenny’s worth,” said Alice Moloney. “I don’t agree, and please let’s not anybody get upset about that, but Kinky’s a very sensible woman. I don’t think she’d be sad at all. I think she’d be laughing like a drain at the lot of us going at it like a bull in a china shop— and all because we want the very best for her. We’re all daft.” She turned to O’Reilly. “We’re like a bunch of kiddies. Thank you, Doctor, for helping us to see that.”
O’Reilly inclined his head.
“Buck eejits,” said Maggie very quietly, “the whole lot of us, and I’m sorry to have been so thran, so I am.”
A lovely Ulster word for “bloody- minded,” O’Reilly thought.
Mister Robinson, who for the duration of the recent discussion had wisely, O’Reilly thought, until now distanced himself from taking part, said, “ ‘Blessèd are the peacemakers,’ Matthew five and nine.”
“May I make a suggestion?” O’Reilly said.
Maggie and Flo’s “Please do, sir” was as one.
“Kinky’s a country girl from County Cork. She’s loved wildflowers all her life. I’m sure she’d be delighted to have them at her wedding.”
From the tail of his eye he saw Maggie’s grin start, so quickly added, “But Flo has a point too. I remember well the night Archie asked me for Kinky’s hand and the beautiful red roses he brought with the ring that evening. I think they’d add a really romantic touch.” Flo’s smile kept Maggie’s company. He waited.
“So why,” said Maggie, “don’t we do both? If that’s all right with you, Flo?”
“Aye,” said Flo, “it is, Maggie, dear. We should have thought of that before, so we should.” She turned to Mister Robinson. “I’m sorry about all the fuss over nothing, sir.”
“It’s perfectly all right, now you’ve kissed and made up,” he said.
“And,” said Maggie, “once we’re done, I think the six of us and,” she hesitated then said, “Mister Robinson and Doctor O’Reilly if they’d like, should all go home to my house for a wee cup of tea in our hands and,” her toothless grin was enormous, “none of youse’ll
go hungry. I just baked two plum cakes today, so I did.”
“That would be lovely,” Flo said, “wouldn’t it, ladies?”
The other four women nodded in agreement.
O’Reilly caught the minister’s eye. He’d seen the same glazed look on the face of a rabbit cornered by a fox. Clearly Mister Robinson had experienced Maggie’s stewed tea and cement- like fruitcake before and was searching desperately for an excuse so he could decline. O’Reilly himself had no such hesitation. “I’d love to come, Maggie. I haven’t seen your cat, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, nor Sonny’s dogs for ages, but you’ll understand a doctor’s day is not his own?” She and the others would at least think they did, and any doctor could claim being needed by the calls of his profession. “But nothing, not a team of wild horses, will keep me from the wedding tomorrow.”
Copyright © 2014 by Patrick Taylor