Tuesday, 1st of August 1995
Mary Quinn was going to kill those wains.
Putting Anna to sleep had been a trial that evening, and she had been down for all of 20 minutes when the sound of Michelle loudly swearing filled the air (and likely heard from Strabane considering the volume), followed by the piercing cry of a toddler abruptly woken up which was now drowning out Coronation Street. Mary was going to have to put an end to these sleepovers if the girls didn’t start to keep quiet.
She hauled herself up from the couch with a groan, mentally making a reminder to watch the Corrie Omnibus on Sunday so she didn’t miss anything. It wasn’t until she was halfway up the stairs that she realised that Anna had stopped crying. Instead, she could hear a soft melody.
Curious, she quietly ascended the rest of the stairs (carefully treading on the squeaky one third from the top so it didn’t make a sound) and crept along the landing. The now-quiet chatter filtered down the stairs leading to Erin’s loft bedroom, but the song, which she realised was someone quietly singing, was coming from Anna’s room.
The door was ajar as she approached, and she silently pushed it open to get a better look inside.
“Together they would travel, on a boat with billowed sails…”
There, standing in the middle of the room with his back to the door, was James with Anna in his arms. He was gently crooning to her, rocking her back and forth, and Mary watched as Anna’s eyes slowly drooped shut. Apparently a wee English fella singing Puff the Magic Dragon had worked where her own Ma reading bedtime stories had failed.
His rocking was slowly bringing him around to face Mary, and he gave a small, almost embarrassed smile as she came into view. Mary beamed back at him, and backed away with a finger to her lips.
Later, when she had heard Anna's door gently click shut, and he had headed back up to Erin’s room, she would be uncharacteristically generous and bring a plate of biscuits up to the girls. And if there were a few of the Garibaldis that only she and James liked tucked on there, well, obviously she’d just forgotten that the others wouldn’t eat them.
* * *
Sunday, 17th of March 1996
Deidre Mallon did not have high hopes for Mother’s Day.
Her prediction for what her children would do ran thus: Michelle would have forgotten despite Martin and James reminding her for the past fortnight, and would surreptitiously slip out to a corner shop that was open on a Sunday to pick up a 50p card and a cheap box of chocolates once she was guilted into it; she’d make a big show of taking them out of wherever she had “hidden” them, and make a half-arsed promise to keep out of trouble (which Deidre would be lucky if she kept to the end of the day). Ryan and Nia- Ryan would pop around for dinner after she had finished her shift, bringing a more expensive card and bottle of wine, a kiss on the cheek, and a promise to visit more often (which would also summarily be broken).
Ryan’s twin would not reach out or be reached out to.
That was the tried and tested formula since they were old enough to buy their own presents (albeit Ryan would have lounged at home all day prior to moving out), and it would be the same that year no doubt. Which is why she was surprised to see a modest, but pretty, bunch of red and yellow chrysanthemums in a white vase on the kitchen counter, with a pale pink envelope resting in front of it, as she came downstairs in the early morning.
Deidre was not a sentimental woman, partly being Derry born and bred, partly a holdover from her punk period in her teens; she certainly would never admit that her breath hitched as she picked up the envelope and read the addressee, and would swear blind she was swiping a speck of dust from her eye rather than a stray tear.
To Auntie Deidre.
She carefully opened the envelope, admiring the fact that James had chosen a rather plain design for the card, rather than one with frippery like teddy bears or (even worse) butterflies, and smiled (wiping another “speck of dust” from her eyes) as she read the dedication inside.
Thank you for being there for me when others
Happy Mother’s Day!
She wouldn’t embarrass him by putting it on display, but by the end of the day it would be carefully placed in the leaves of one of the few photo albums that were above her wardrobe, along with the other family mementos that she kept.
Maybe the formula wasn’t quite as tried and tested as she had thought.
* * *
Friday, 27th of September 1996
It was 2AM when Joe McCool finally made it home from A&E.
The “Eejit” had driven him and Mary home, seeing that:
a) Joe’s leg was in a plaster cast, and
b) his car had been towed away after having some rather intimate bars with that tree. Joe still maintained it had come out of nowhere.
They’d helped him through the door, Joe quietly cursing Gerry for getting in his way, and into the front room where one or two of the lamps were still on. Joe had insisted he wasn’t heading to bed until he’d had a cup of tea first.
As expected, the girls were still downstairs, although they had apparently succumbed to sleep. Orla was in Joe’s chair, brow furrowed and lips frowning as she slept, with the curled up form of Anna snuggled in on her lap. Erin was stretched out on the sofa, snoring softly. What was a surprise was that the wee English fella was sat at one end, Erin using his lap as a pillow.
James was still awake, one hand holding a book from Joe’s eldest granddaughter’s collection - The Catcher in the Rye, he thought - the other (apparently unconsciously) raking lightly through Erin’s hair. It didn’t escape Joe’s notice that even though her forehead was crinkled like Orla’s, she wore a soft smile instead of a frown.
He turned his head as they entered the room, ducking it in acknowledgement that they weren’t expecting him to be here, and marked his place in the book with a finger.
“Sorry to be a bother, Mr and Mrs Quinn. The girls sounded really upset over the phone earlier, and I thought they could use a friendly face while they waited for news.” His voice was low, barely louder than a whisper. Erin shifted in her sleep as he spoke.
Mary untangled herself from Joe and quietly walked to the kitchen, ruffling James’ curls with a smile as she passed. The English may have charmed his daughter and son-in-law (not that that would be a difficult task), but Joe still maintained a healthy scepticism towards him.
“How are you feeling, Mr McCool?”
Joe snorted as James proved his point. “Well, son,” he began in a low growl, “I’ve crashed my car, broken my tibia, and been at the mercy of the HSC for the last eight hours without so much as a cup of tea. How do you think I’m feeling?”
James visibly paled, but shrugged in a you-make-a-fair-point kind of way. Joe heard Gerry click his tongue from behind him.
“Let the wee fella be, Joe.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, you southern shite?”
It was one of the weaker entries into kicking off an argument with Gerry, Joe would have to admit, but he was tired and still in pain and needed to take his frustrations out on someone.
In the background he was vaguely aware of Mary placing a mug of tea next to James, which was received with a grateful nod and a quiet “Thank you,” before she leant in and had a whispered conversation with him. James began to stand, but a combination of Mary gently pushing him back into place and Erin crying out gibberish in her sleep as he shifted made him admit defeat, and he settled back down.
“I’ll let them know you’re home when they wake up,” he whispered.
Mary nodded, then turned to her husband and her father. “Right, break it up and get upstairs Da. I’m shattered. You can have your tea in bed.”
Taking one last look at the wains before Gerry and Mary helped him up the stairs, Joe smiled in spite of himself. James had returned to his book, his left thumb now gently tracing circles on Erin’s temple. Her smile had deepened, and her brow had relaxed.
Tomorrow, Joe would receive admonishments from Erin and Orla for his driving, and would spin Anna a tale of fighting a Pooka to explain the broken leg, but for tonight he would leave them all in safe hands.
Maybe the wee English fella would end up charming Joe after all. In the future. At some point, somewhere down the line.
* * *
Sunday, 20th of July 1997
If Gerry Quinn was being entirely honest, he wasn’t a sports fan.
That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy watching a game on TV every now and again, but it was essentially an hour or two’s respite from being heavily outnumbered by the… wonderfully forthright and opinionated women of the Quinn-McCool household.
Mary had agreed to let Erin have a sleepover that night, so the sounds of four wile chatty young women could be heard all the way in the front room. James had wisely, in Gerry’s opinion, decided to watch the Ulster Final too, giving him a well deserved break before diving back into the madness.
Gerry had always felt a bit of a kinship with the wee fella; both outsiders of Derry and under the thumb of at least one Derry woman (a whole pack in James’ case), there was a great deal of unspoken sympathy that flowed back and forth.
That wasn’t to say Gerry didn’t have ulterior motives of his own when it came to the young man. James had studiously avoided the Quinn house for two weeks after the wains’ overnight trip to the Free State, and Erin had come back from it only to loudly proclaim she was taking some time to figure herself out, and was done chasing after boys for the foreseeable. Only a blind man (or perhaps Sarah or Orla) wouldn't have noticed the awkwardness between James, Erin, and Michelle.
Gerry had a reputation of being a pushover, but despite what his father-in-law thought he could snoop with the best of them. This was the first time Gerry had been able to get James alone, and with Joe over the road at Jim’s, Mary and Sarah out in the back garden with Anna, and the girls upstairs, it was a perfect time to interrogate him. Carefully.
Gerry kept his head straight at the TV, but glanced at James out of the corner of his eye. “So…”
James sat up straighter as Gerry spoke, and turned slightly to face him with a polite, expectant expression. Gerry remained silent, counting slowly in his head, until James turned back to watch the game.
If he was a cruel man, Gerry might have burst out laughing at the suddenness that James tensed up. Instead, he kept his face neutral, but James’ reaction confirmed to him that something had happened while they were away.
“Erin gave us some of the story -” which was true, although he omitted that she conspicuously did not mention anything about James other than him being knocked out, “- but I wanted to get your side of it.”
James’ mouth seemed to have gone very dry, judging by the way he was swallowing and nervously licking his lips. It was opening and closing like a particularly nonplussed fish, but Gerry could wait him out. James too remained staring straight at the TV.
“I- I- We- Er… She…”
“In your own time, lad.”
James’ gulp was surprisingly audible, as was the rather deep breath he took.
“I’m sorry if it went too far, Mr Quinn,” he rushed out, cheeks reddening.
Bad start, son , thought Gerry, eye twitching slightly. He kept silent, trusting in the awkward atmosphere and James’ nervousness to keep the explanation going.
“After being hit with the van and the whole near death experience, I felt I couldn't wait any longer to speak to Erin and get what I was holding in off my chest. I just needed to tell her how I felt about her - still do feel, I mean.” He spoke rapidly, doing a fair impression of Clare in her worst cack attack.
Mary’s theory was confirmed, at least. She’d always told Gerry that the lad liked their daughter more than just a friend - it was part of the reason she’d called him to take Erin to the prom.
“That’s all I did, then I was going to leave it.” He finally paused for breath, before continuing in a soft near-whisper. “I did tell her that I thought she was beautiful, though.”
James wasn’t wrong that Erin was a beautiful young woman, in Gerry’s opinion, but that might have been his fatherly bias showing. The “was” that James alluded to piqued his interest though.
“She was the one that kissed me first, and, I mean, I kissed back, but…”
James wore a slightly wistful smile as his blush had reached his ears, and if Gerry was being honest with himself he had likely gone a little red in the face too. Somehow, while James declaring his feelings was unexpected, he was not altogether surprised to hear that Erin had been the one to then instigate the physical affection.
“Michelle soon put a stop to it though.” James sounded resigned, and a little resentful. “We won’t take it further, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
Gerry cleared his throat, finally turning his head from the TV and stared James down with a serious look on his face.
“But would you want to take it further with Erin, James? If it wasn’t up to Michelle?”
The young man froze again, searching Gerry's face to see if this was a trick question. After a few seconds he nodded, with what Gerry assumed was a hope that their limited camaraderie would help keep him alive. “When - If - she wants to try a relationship together at some point in the future, I’ll wait for her, aye.”
Gerry couldn’t help but smile at the Irishisms he was assimilating, and reached up to squeeze James' shoulder.
“Have patience, son. You’ll be needing it with that one anyway, so you will. If it were me-” he began, but whatever advice he was going to give out was abruptly cut off, as the herd of young women thundered down the stairs.
“What’re you up to, ballache?” Michelle loudly asked, before glancing at Erin’s Da at the other end of the couch. “Sorry, Gerry.”
She threw herself into Joe’s armchair, already engrossed in the TV and questioning the referee’s legitimacy, as Clare quickly bagsied the other armchair. Orla settled on the middle of the sofa, between her uncle and James, and rested her head on the latter's shoulder.
Erin huffed as she realised there was nowhere to sit, before dropping heavily into James’ lap (accompanied by winces from both him and Gerry) and making a face as if to dare him to say something. Which he didn’t, of course.
Watching the rest of the match was a lot noisier than before, but for the sake of the two men’s thoughts that wasn’t a bad thing. Gerry watched out of the corner of his eye, smiling gently, as Erin shifted around a little, getting more comfortable at James’ expense.
Aye, the poor lad is firmly under her thumb…
* * *
Monday, 22nd of September 1997
Christ, but Sister Michael hated doing the morning walkaround.
It was bad enough that Mr. Macaulay was away in Rome with half of the Modern Foreign Languages teachers, but with Sister Peter in the hospital she really didn’t have a choice. Still, the quicker she did it, the quicker she could be back in her office. A packet of cheese and onion Tayto was waiting for her in one of the desk drawers, and the glass was already out ready for her post-Jenny-Joyce-assembly whiskey to be poured later.
As she rounded the final corner, a hunched over figure was standing by the main entrance to the school, hand resting on the door handle and the other in their pocket. It wasn’t difficult to identify who it was, being that he was the only student who was permitted to wear trousers.
It always amused Sister Michael that her students never heard her approach, although James seemed to be in his own head more than usual that morning. Thus she was able to stand undetected two feet behind him before speaking.
“Going in, Mr Maguire?”
James jumped, causing Sister Michael a small amount of satisfaction, and he slightly turned towards her out of instinct.
“Jesus Christ, James!” She was not expecting his face to look like that, shocked enough that she slipped and used his given name.
It was a mess of purple bruises and still pink cuts, with a particularly nasty looking gash running along his left cheekbone held closed by butterfly sutures. One eye was blackened, and still puffy. The hand touching the door handle was bruised as well, his knuckles raw. He winced as he turned, but looked more embarrassed than upset.
Sister Michael pointed into the school sharply, her mouth drawn into a thin line, and directed him towards her office. The halls were silent by this point, the rest of the students already in their tutor groups, and the only sound was the soft tread of their feet on the wooden floor.
She held the door open as they reached the office, and jerked her head towards the bench sitting in front of the desk.
“Sit.” She took her own seat, and regarded him with an unblinking stare. She gestured to his face. “Well?”
“I tripped, Sister.”
She snorted. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Mr Maguire. What really happened?”
He didn’t respond.
“I can sit here all day if needed.”
The clock ticked quietly in the background as they stared at each other.
“Fine. I got into a fight on Saturday.”
“That much is obvious, Mr Maguire. It’s been three years since you arrived, I’m just surprised it took this long. Was it the Catholic thing, or the English thing?”
James’ embarrassed look disappeared, and was replaced by a defiant one as he straightened out of his hunch. He raised his chin, and his eyes took on a steely look. “It was a cousin thing, actually.”
That wasn’t what Sister Michael was expecting to hear. She fixed him with a beady glare.
“Miss Mallon didn’t finally snap, did she? She seemed to have settled down the animosity towards you as of late.”
He laughed. The wee lad actually laughed in front of her while she was staring him down; those girls had certainly beaten the Derry into him over the years, and had a lot to answer for as a result. “No. This was a gift from three idiots from Christan Brother Boys.”
She felt her mouth drop open. “ Three?! ”
He nodded. “They caught me on a walk on Saturday, and decided to taunt me by implying that Michelle was rather free in her affections. The City Slut, I believe they said. I threw the first punch, but…well…”
She exhaled loudly. “Christ, but you’re a dose. And mind your language.”
“It’s used in Shakespeare, Sister.”
“Doesn’t count, he was English. What did Miss Mallon say when she saw you?”
The embarrassed look came back. “She doesn’t know. She was out when I got home, and I convinced my Aunt and Uncle to ground me in my room for the rest of the weekend so she didn’t see me. I left while she was in the shower this morning and walked here.”
“And I assume the rest of your…flock aren’t aware either?”
He shook his head, eyes dropping. Silence fell again in the office, as Sister Michael thought about how to proceed. Coming to a decision, she stood, and walked over to a cabinet in the corner.
“I believe you turned eighteen last month, didn’t you, James?”
“Yes?” he responded, hesitantly.
“And are you on painkillers right now?”
“I’ve not taken any today yet, Sister.”
“Good.” There was a clink as she placed a glass of whiskey in front of him. “Sláinte. Stay here, drink this, and don’t breathe a word that I gave it to you or I will make your remaining time at Our Lady Immaculate a living hell. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
One seemingly never ending assembly later she returned to the office, shepherding the gaggle of girls in front of her.
James had made the mistake of turning to look as the door opened, which gave him no time to hide his injuries from his friends. They hesitated for all of two seconds as they took his face in, then descended en masse.
“What the fuck, Fuck Face?!”
Sister Michael couldn’t bring herself to object to Michelle’s language.
James’ cousin immediately went up to him and none too gently poked him in the chest, eliciting a wince as she regarded him with a look of concern. Erin’s fingers found his face, gently tracing the cut on his cheek and turning his head from side to side, as Orla held his bruised hand and rested her head on his shoulder. Clare wrapped her arms around him from behind.
Sister Michael let them fawn over him for a few minutes, before kicking them all out to go to their first lesson. Later, she would need to phone his aunt to discuss it, and recruit her to get him to join the Friday Judo sessions.
She picked up the empty whiskey glass from her desk, raised it in cheers towards the door they’d just walked through, and smirked to herself as she thought of the first time she’d met James three years earlier. He’d come a long way from pissing into a bin.
* * *
Wednesday, 22nd of May, 2013
Sarah McCool would admit that she was confused.
James was standing at the altar, smiling broadly but looking slightly dazed, as if he’d been struck on the back of the head. Michelle stood smirking beside him. His eyes were fixed on Erin in her wedding dress as she and Gerry walked up the aisle.
Sarah leant across the pew to Mary, and in all seriousness asked “Is the wee fella really not gay, then?”