Kevin O’Kelly crouched in the middle of the street, rubbing down Fionn’s coat with affection. He had always loved that dog. And there was no danger in loitering on the road; the town was so quiet today. A few people shuffled down the street, to the post office or the church, their heads bowed…at school, the kids’ usual clamour had changed to a curious, whispering hush…the occasional clanging of Hendley’s door bell seemed carelessly intrusive, breaking the hush of a town – a whole valley it seemed – in mourning. And there stood Fitzgerald’s, dark and empty. Because Assumpta Fitzgerald was dead.
Kevin stood up, taking Fionn’s leash, and came to stand outside that familiar blue door. The warm, bright place he would always find his father laughing with Mr. Kearney and Siobhan, and the landlady would smile at him, and tell him that Fionn was out the back…He couldn’t believe that it was really closed; for as long as he could remember, Fitzgerald’s and its publican had been there every day, a familiar cosy haven for the villagers. Vague images, memories floated through his mind; hours spent there, and always with Assumpta somewhere in the scene. She was always there, like a living extension of the building itself; pulling pints, laughing with Mrs. Egan, tidying the place, giving his dad a hard time…
Kevin decided he wasn’t going to cry, even though he could feel a pricking behind his eyes as he gripped the old wooden bench. Crying wouldn’t fix anything, and she wouldn’t have liked to see him in tears anyway. But as he leant his head against Fionn’s warm one, the boy was close to it; he wouldn’t let a soul know, but truth be told Assumpta Fitzgerald had been his first ‘love’. At least, he’d admired her; she was beautiful and strong and clever, and much more real than any of the ‘perfect’ movie stars his friends were starting to ogle over. And Kevin knew that he must be one of the least hurt by the tragedy; there were others who had known her better, loved her more.
He felt a sudden urge to do something, for her, to make some appropriately grand gesture in Assumpta’s honour. Kevin looked up as her dog barked, pulling a little on the leash, and across the road that journalist woman was climbing into her car.
Good riddance, thought the boy, glaring as she drove away. Then, with a sigh, he made his way back to school, racking his brain for some way to honour the woman they’d lost.
Brendan Kearney watched the door shut behind the last of his young students, and finally allowed himself to collapse into the chair. He closed his eyes, rubbing them hard in an attempt to keep the tears at bay. When Brendan opened his eyes, they fell on the desk that young Assumpta Fitzgerald had once occupied, twelve or so years ago. He could see her; fresh-faced, dark hair cascading wildly down her back, eyes sparkling in mischief at some witty little prank…He remembered attempting to teach her trigonometry; the little smart-alec had responded to “Find x” by circling it and scrawling “Here it is.” She’d always been much more interested in literature, and poetry. And Brendan had been so proud when she’d gone off to college to study the Arts; he’d been quietly touched when the headstrong girl had stopped by his classroom to let him know of her plans for further study. God, back then they’d had no idea of how their lives would turn out…But through it all, Assumpta had been strong, so strong – almost too much so, to the point of not letting anybody in; though Brendan had his suspicions that that had been changing. God! He slammed his fist down on his desk, startling young Kevin O’Kelly, who stood in the doorway.
“Sorry sir, should I come back later?”
Brendan sighed, massaging his brow. “No, no, come in Kev. What can I do for you?”
The boy fidgeted for a moment, lowering his piercingly blue eyes.
“Sir…That woman who was here, the journalist. She was up to no good, wasn’t she?”
Brendan nodded, breathing deeply, feeling a fresh surge of anger at the Enquirer’s incredible insensitivity, selfish scandal-mongering. “Yes, she was. But we’ve seen the back of her, you’ve nothing to worry about.”
Young Kevin nodded. “I know. But it got me thinking…it shouldn’t be up to a stranger to write about the people we love, should it? And I thought, if you think it would be right, perhaps we could write a real ‘affectionate tribute’ in memory of Assumpta. With messages and memories from people who really knew her. I just think she deserves a memoriam kind of a thing.”
Gazing at the little freckled man, Brendan swallowed hard, closed his eyes, and nodded. “Kevin, I think that is a brilliant idea. Assumpta would feel honoured, I’m sure.”
“I think she’d probably laugh and tell me to bog off,” replied the boy, with a small smile, and Brendan actually chuckled, nodding.
“You may be right; but that was just her way…Look, Kevin, if you write this, and get contributions from the townsfolk, I’ll edit it for you, and make sure it gets published in the school newsletter, if not the newspaper.”
“Thanks Mr. Kearney,” Kevin nodded gravely, squaring his shoulders in responsibility. “And, I’m very sorry, for you.”
Brendan clenched his jaw for a moment, then patted the lad’s shoulder.
“We’re all mourning, Kev. Together. Now, go on. Good man.”
Padraig let his screwdriver slip from his hand to the floor, as he shuffled inside. His expression softened upon finding his son bent over the kitchen table, suddenly feeling immensely grateful that Kevin was alive. Gripping his son’s shoulder, the garage owner murmured, “How are ya, Kev?”
“I’m fine, Dad.” He looked up at his father, then down at the notebook on the table. “Mr. Kearney’s given me a project – well, it was my idea, but he’s agreed to it – I’m going to write a sort of a tribute article, in memory of Assumpta. I’ll get quotes from people in the community, to show how well-loved she was.”
Padraig was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of pride in his son and pain at their loss, but he managed to smile, “That’s great, Kev. Well done.”
“Would you like to contribute?”
“Of course,” the man blinked, “ah…Look, could ya give me a while to think? I’ll put my bit in after you’ve got something from everyone else.”
“Okay, Dad,” Kevin nodded, getting to his feet with the notebook clasped against his chest like a new breed of journalist, flaming with integrity and purpose. As his son strode out of the kitchen, Padraig sat down in the chair left vacant. There was a can of Harp on the bench. It opened with a hiss, and as he raised it in a toast, Padraig murmured, “This one’s on me, Assumpta.”
Outside St. Joseph’s Church, a small gathering was slowly departing for Mr. Quigley’s house. Niamh was holding the newly-christened Kieran, her husband close by her side. Kevin felt like he was intruding, but he was also knew that he had an important job to fulfil, so he ambled up to the group. Spotting Father Peter clad in his vestments, Kevin made a beeline for the familiar figure.
“Oh, hi Kevin.” His smile lacked its usual warmth.
“Sorry to bother you Father, but where are they all going?”
“Off to Brian’s, to celebrate Kieran’s christening.”
“D’ya think they’d mind if I tagged along? I just want a word with some of them, that’s all. I’m, err, I’m writing an article, a tribute, in memory of Assumpta Fitzgerald. Mr. Kearney’s going to edit it for me. Going to get everyone to put a bit in.”
The priest’s expression was difficult to read, but eventually he said, “That’s wonderful, Kevin. Good on you.”
Young Kevin bit his lip, then looked up at Father Peter. “Would you like to put a bit in? She liked you.”
Peter managed a smile, and reached out for the boy’s shoulder. “She liked you, too.” He lowered his eyes, frowned, then continued, “Kevin, I’m really glad that you’re doing this…but right now, I don’t know what to say. There’ll be enough messages of love for Assumpta, no one will notice if mine’s missing.”
A frown creased Kevin’s brow and he averted his eyes, feeling that he shouldn’t stare at a grieving man.
“Alright. Anyway, it’s just an article, and it’s more for us than her. She’ll already know how much she meant to us, won’t she Father?”
“I hope so, Kevin. I hope so.”
“Well, I better go and see if I can catch Mrs. Egan and the others,” the boy began, striding away from the church, pausing briefly when Peter called out after him.
“Kevin…Take care, eh.”
Niamh smiled across the room, watching her dad bouncing little Kieran. But her son wasn’t quite as bubbly as usual today; perhaps he knew that everyone was aching on the inside. Babies had an instinct that way. The woman sighed and sipped her champagne; it didn’t taste right. Looking down into the fizzing amber liquid, she thought of the innumerable glasses she’d shared with Assumpta; laughing and crying, chatting and fighting, her best friend had always been there. During her first miscarried pregnancy especially. And Niamh had never been able to return the favour. Oh, she’d planned, daydreamed of supporting Assumpta through her own marriage and pregnancy…But things hadn’t turned out that way.
She still couldn’t fathom it; how could a woman who had been so sharp, witty, so alive, suddenly be gone, leaving a darkened pub and broken hearts?
“Well hello Kev, how are you son?”
Niamh looked up as the O’Kelly boy entered the room, greeted by their friends. He looked rather uncomfortable, clutching a notebook in one hand.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Mrs. Egan…Could I have a word?”
“Of course,” she nodded, curious, gesturing that they retreat into the kitchen.
“What’s that writing there?”
“Well, Mr. Kearney’s letting me write an article for the school newsletter, in memory of Assumpta. I want to get messages from all the people who cared about her.”
Niamh raised her eyebrows in soft surprise, then a gentle smile crossed her face and she murmured, “You’ll take up every page if you’ve messages from all the people who cared about her.”
The boy smiled. “I was wondering if you might like to put something in?”
“Of course I would.” Niamh leant against the bench as he flipped open his notebook.
“It’s hard to think of what to say…Well, Assumpta was my best friend. We grew up together, went through school together. In a little place like Ballykissangel, community bonds are close-knit, and Assumpta was a fine example of the way we all look out for each other, even if we don’t make a big show of it. I probably didn’t appreciate how hard she worked, I could’ve helped her more…Anyway, I’m honoured to call myself her friend.”
Kevin was scribbling down her words furiously, and looked up to ask, “Is there any one story or memory of Assumpta that you’d like to share?”
A sparkle entered Mrs. Egan’s misty eyes, and she murmured, “A lot of them aren’t suitable for print. Oh, I don’t know…There were several times when I was feeling down, and she knew just how to look after me; there’s no better tonic than chocolate cake, wine, and a friend. I’m missing that, now…”
Kevin nodded, closing his notebook.
“Thank you Mrs. Egan, I’m sorry to ruin your christening party.”
Niamh shook her head emphatically. “Not at all! It’s nearly over, anyway. You should catch the others as they leave, and get their comments.”
Siobhan Mehigan looked so different, dressed up for the christening in her new role as Kieran’s godmother. Kevin hesitated to tap her on the shoulder, but Brendan noticed the boy waiting, and called her attention to him.
“Excuse me, but I’m writing a memoriam for Assumpta Fitzgerald. Would you like to contribute?”
Siobhan smiled warmly. “Sure I’d be honoured.” They sat down on the couch, and the vet raised her eyes, formulating ideas in her head.
“I’ve known Assumpta a long time, all of her young life. You couldn’t live in this village and not notice her, she was such a presence; a lively one at that. She was a strong girl, could really hold her own, but I was lucky enough to see a softer side as well. Assumpta was very good to me, really. She was good to everyone, in her way. Sure, she could give you a right lashing with that tongue of hers, but she never failed to provide a pint and a laugh. She’ll be sorely missed.”
“Is there one particular memory of her that you’d like to share?”
Siobhan chuckled. “Only one?”
Liam and Donal were loitering outside the new restaurant, unable to shake off the gloom that had pervaded the village. They looked up as a boy came striding down the street.
He stopped, crossing to meet them.
“What’s this I hear about you writing something, in memory of Assumpta?”
“That’s right. Would you two have anything to contribute?”
Liam removed his well-worn cap in an earnest gesture of respect, and looked down in thought. “Um…I don’t know if anything a simple fella like me could come up with could be good enough to honour her.”
Donal nodded soberly. “Aye, Assumpta deserved poetry. A sonnet, or an ode.”
Kevin could not keep the scepticism out of his voice as he asked, “D’ya have one, then?” Donal opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head.
The light was beginning to leave Ballykissangel by the time young Kevin knocked on the doctor’s door. It was disconcerting to see Dr. Ryan himself looking almost unwell.
“Oh, hello Kevin. Are you well?”
“Fine, thanks doctor. Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to contribute to a memorial article I’m writing, for Assumpta Fitzgerald.”
A sad smile crossed Michael’s face, and he nodded. “Of course. Come in.”
“A particular story? Well, I saw the most of Assumpta in her younger days. I do remember the time her dad rushed her in here, she must’ve been about seven; she’d been climbing the trees at Kilnashee, fallen down and fractured her wrist. The girl was adamant that it wasn’t her fault that she fell; one of the ‘little people’ had pushed her.”
Kevin grinned, taking that down. “Thanks, Doctor.”
Padraig looked up as the door banged shut.
“Kevin? It’s almost dark!”
“Sorry Dad, I’ve been out interviewing people for my article. Have you thought of what you want to say yet?”
Brendan sat down groggily at the kitchen table to a cup of coffee, still mostly asleep. He jumped in surprise to hear a rapping on his door, and glanced at the clock. It was half past seven in the morning, who on earth…?
He opened the door to find Kevin O’Kelly on his doorstep, proffering a worn notebook and looking suspiciously as though he hadn’t slept at all.
“Kevin, what are you doing here at this hour? And weren’t you wearing those clothes yesterday?”
“I brought you the article, sir. Thought I should give you as long as possible to edit it, and then get it in to the secretary.”
Brendan sighed, feeling a wave of affection for the earnest boy. “Thank you, I look forward to reading it. Do you want to come in for a coffee?”
Brendan handed his young student a mug of coffee, then opened to the first page. The sight of the scrawled handwriting, crossed with corrections and additions, made the teacher need to clear his throat before reading aloud.
“Our small community has been shaken this week by the tragic loss of Assumpta Fitzgerald; landlady of the popular Fitzgerald’s pub, and friend to many. She touched the lives of so many people around her, and now we are brought together to mourn her, and celebrate her life.”
Brendan reread the paragraph, trying to think of the wording, when he looked up and found that Kevin’s head was bowed to his cup, his freckled face creased and streaked with fresh tears. This reaction came as such a surprise, Brendan was stunned for a moment, long enough for Kevin to burst out,
“It’s pointless! I tried, but the words sound so…fake and stupid. Like I’m talking about some politician or something. I can’t possibly do her justice; I don’t think even a proper poet could, and I’m hardly that.”
Brendan sighed, sitting down next to the boy and placing a hand on Kevin’s shoulder while the boy continued, more softly.
“I tried to write a poem for her, but nothing I could come up with is good enough. I’m sorry.”
As Kevin fiercely scrubbed his tear-stained cheeks with his sleeve, the teacher fixed him with an earnest gaze.
“Kevin…Firstly, Assumpta would have loved to know that you wanted to write a poem for her; she loved poetry. As for the rest of it, let’s work through it together, and see if we can get the words to sound the way we want. You’ve got it in you; what we’re wanting is something simple, truthful and loving, isn’t that right?”
Kevin nodded, and reached for his pencil.
Father MacAnally took a sip from his teacup, staring at the pile of paperwork before him. His eyes sought out the smallest piece; the school newsletter, delivered to him as always for perusal. But today his interest was more than a vague one; the parish priest was curious to read the memorial article that O’Kelly boy had written.
It had surprised him, almost to the point of amusement, to see the schoolboy enter his office, clearly intimidated, but at the same time resolute. He was writing an article, and wanted to get a comment from everyone. Father Mac had been impressed by his courage, and his earnestness.
Opening the newsletter, the feature article struck him immediately.
Assumpta Fitzgerald: In Memoriam
By Kevin O’Kelly
This week, we lost our friend Assumpta Fitzgerald. She was a familiar face to the people of Ballykissangel, and her pub Fitzgerald’s has been the most popular haven in town ever since she took over. As the community mourns this great loss, people who have known and loved Assumpta share their memories of her, and celebrate her life.
Brendan Kearney, teacher at Ballykissangel school, has known Assumpta since the day she was born, and she was in his class for some time. He has fond memories of her school days, especially the way she would pretend to grumble on class nature-walks, yet always be the first up the hill, and the greatest admirer of the view. He says that in her love of the land and of literature, Miss Fitzgerald was “a true Irishwoman.” She was also a true friend, standing up for Mr. Kearney in difficult times.
Father MacAnally commented on the great impact her death will have on the community. Kathleen Hendley remembers her as a good neighbour, especially when the Hendley house burnt down and Miss Fitzgerald was selfless in offering assistance.
Mrs. Niamh Egan was a good friend of Assumpta’s from their school days together, and is very grateful for all the laughter and chocolate cake they shared. She remembers Assumpta as a woman who “could laugh with you and cry with you, and never ask for anything in return.” Garda Egan reiterated his wife’s praises of their friend, saying that her smiling face over the bar will be sorely missed, and the whole place will be horribly quiet without her.
Brian Quigley expressed his sorrow at the tragedy, calling Miss Fitzgerald a “strong, admirable woman whom I greatly respected.”
Doctor Michael Ryan is proud to say that he delivered Assumpta, fondly joking that she had a strong will of her own from the very beginning. As a child, Assumpta had to visit him a lot, when various adventures got her into trouble. His favourite memory is the time she knocked on his door with young Niamh Quigley in tow, asking him to check if her arm was broken, and explaining that rolling down the hill had been her idea, so she would pay for the doctor’s appointment out of her pocket money (in the end, the arm was not broken, and Dr. Ryan did not charge for the session).
Local vet Siobhan Mehigan was a regular at Fitzgerald’s pub, and is already missing Assumpta’s service and friendly banter. “She was a fine publican, and a real lady. Everyone respected her, and loved her too what’s more.” Miss Mehigan found it hard to single out one favourite memory of Assumpta, but she did particularly enjoy watching her compete (and win) in the publican’s race at the Ballykissangel Festival. “She could take on an army and look gorgeous while she was about it.”
Padraig O’Kelly, owner of the local garage said he always respected Assumpta’s quiet dedication to the community of Ballykissangel, and the many times she put herself out to help others, giving her pub as a base for various community projects; especially last Christmas, when she offered Fitzgerald’s as search-party base to find missing children. Mr. O’Kelly was also honoured to have Assumpta take the leading role in the premiere performance of a play he wrote in conjunction with Brendan Kearney, ‘Ryan’s Mother’. “Assumpta was wonderful in that role; as fine an actress as she was a human being. Beautiful in every sense of the word.”
So many people loved and miss Assumpta, we couldn’t fit everything in this article, but here are a few more comments we wanted to include.
“Miss Fitzgerald was a real lady, and there was never a dull moment when you were with her.”- Donal Docherty
“I know I can’t explain it properly, but if you were lucky enough to receive one of Assumpta’s smiles, you felt right honoured, like a king. She was lovely.” – Liam Coghlan
“I remember her because at the festival Conn was playing the fiddle and she came and danced with us. And she was really pretty.” – Nora, 6 years old
“In all my days, I’ve never met another girl like Assumpta, and I’ve been alive a long time now. God bless her.” – Eamon Byrne
I didn’t know how to finish this article, and I didn’t know what I could say that hadn’t already been said; especially because the grandest words could hardly do justice to the life of Assumpta Fitzgerald. Instead, I drew the Celtic knot printed at the bottom of this page; I tried to make it original, and even though it’s not very good I want to dedicate it to Assumpta, because I think that’s about as close as I can get to representing her properly. Just like a Celtic knot, Assumpta’s good spirit goes on forever, in our memories and our hearts.
Father Mac breathed out slowly, and closed the newsletter. He didn’t want his tea anymore.
Niamh Egan was pushing Kieran along in his pram, down the main street of Ballykissangel. The air still held a trace of morning crispness. She looked up to see the O’Kelly boy coming down the street, with Fionn trotting by his side. They met midway, outside the closed blue door.
“Morning, Mrs. Egan.”
“Good morning, Kevin. I wanted to say…the article you wrote for Assumpta, it was beautiful. She would have been very honoured.”
“She deserved to be,” replied the boy, shuffling a little.
They both turned their heads to look up at the painted sign above the doorway of Fitzgerald’s. “What’s going to happen to the pub, Mrs?”
Niamh sighed, and shook her head. “I don’t know yet I’m afraid, Kevin.” Then a little smile lit her eyes. “But whenever it does open again, I think we should put up a copy of your article, in a frame. So that the people never forget who made it Fitzgerald’s.”
Kevin gaped. “Really? I’d be honoured.”
“You deserve to be,” Niamh smiled. “Now, go on with you, and take good care of my friend’s dog.”
Kevin nodded, smiling, and boy and dog bounded off towards the green countryside that was home – that had been home for so many who were gone now, and would yet be home for many to come. Endings were strange things, but so were beginnings.
Niamh reached out, pressing her palm against the wooden door of Fitzgerald’s. Then, she turned to her son, and set slowly off, to face the new day.