The kitchen was full of the smells of baking. Benny put down her school bag and went on a tour of inspection.
"The cake hasn't been iced yet," Patsy explained. "The mistress will do that herself."
"What are you going to put on it?" Benny was eager.
"I suppose Happy Birthday Benny." Patsy was surprised.
"Maybe she'll put Benny Hogan, Ten."
"I never saw that on a cake."
"I think it is, when it's a big birthday like being ten."
"Maybe." Patsy was doubtful.
"And are the jellies made?"
"They're in the pantry. Don't go in poking at them, you'll leave the mark of your finger and we'll all be killed."
"I can't believe I'm going to be ten," Benny said, delighted with herself.
"Ah, it's a big day all right." Patsy spoke absently as she greased the trays for the queen cakes with a scrap of butter paper.
"What did you do when you were ten?"
"Don't you know with me every day was the same," Patsy said cheerfully. "There was no day different in the orphanage until I came out of it and came here."
Benny loved to hear stories of the orphanage. She thought it was better than anything they read in books. There was the room with the twelve iron beds in it, the nice girls, the terrible girls, the time they all got nits in their hair and had their heads shaved.
"They must have had birthdays," Benny insisted.
"I don't remember them." Patsy sighed. "There was a nice nun who said to me that I was Wednesday's child, full of woe."
"That wasn't nice."
"Well, at least she knew I was born on a Wednesday . . . Here's your mother, now let me get on with the work."
Annabel Hogan came in carrying three big bags. She was surprised to see her daughter sitting swinging her legs in the kitchen.
"Aren't you home nice and early? Let me put these things upstairs."
Benny ran over to Patsy when her mother's heavy tread was heard on the stairs.
"Do you think she got it?"
"Don't ask me Benny, I know nothing."
"You're saying that because you do
"Was she in Dublin? Did she go up on the bus?"
"No, not at all."
"But she must have." Benny seemed very disappointed.
"No, she's not long gone at all. . . . She was only up the town."
Benny licked the spoon thoughtfully. "It's nicer raw," she said.
"You always thought that." Patsy looked at her fondly.
"When I'm eighteen and can do what I like, I'll eat all my cakes uncooked," Benny pronounced.
"No you won't, when you're eighteen you'll be so busy getting thin you won't eat cakes at all."
"I'll always want cakes."
"You say that now. Wait till you want some fellow to fancy you."
"Do you want a fellow to fancy you?"
"Of course I do, what else is there?"
"What fellow? I don't want you to go anyway."
"I won't get a fellow, I'm from nowhere, a decent fellow wouldn't be able to talk about me and where I came from. I have no background, no life before, you see."
"But you had a great
life," Benny cried. "You'd make them all interested in you."
There was no time to discuss it further. Benny's mother was back in the kitchen, her coat off and down to business with the icing sugar.
"Were you in Dublin at all today, Mother?"
"No child, I had enough to do getting things ready for the party."
"It's just I was wondering . . ."
"Parties don't run themselves you know." The words sounded sharp but the tone was kindly. Benny knew her mother was looking forward to it all too.
"And will Father be home for the cake bit?"
"Yes, he will. We've asked the people for half-past three, they'll all be here by four, so we needn't sit down to the tea until half-past five, and we wouldn't have got to the cake until your father has the business closed, and is back here."
Benny's father ran Hogan's Outfitters, the big menswear shop in the middle of Knockglen. The shop was often at its busiest on a Saturday, when the farmers came in, or the men who had a half day themselves were marched in by wives to have themselves fitted out by Mr. Hogan, or Mike the old assistant, the tailor who had been there since time immemorial. Since the days when young Mr. Hogan had bought the business.
Benny was glad that her father would be there for the cake, because that was when she might be given her present. Father had said it was going to be a wonderful surprise. Benny knew
that they must have got her the velvet dress with the lacy collar and the pumps to go with it. She had wanted it since last Christmas when they went to the pantomime in Dublin and she had seen the girls on the stage dancing in pink velvet dresses like this.
They had heard that they sold them in Clerys, and that was only a few minutes from where the bus stopped when it went to Dublin.
Benny was large and square, but she wouldn't look like that in the pink velvet dress. She would be just like the fairy dancers they had seen on the stage, and her feet wouldn't look big and flat in those shoes because they had lovely pointy toes, and little pom-poms on them.
The invitations to the party had been sent out ten days ago. There would be seven girls from school, farmers' daughters mainly from outside Knockglen. And Maire Carroll, whose mother and father owned the grocery. The Kennedys from the chemist's were all boys so they wouldn't be there, and Dr. Johnson's children were all too young so they couldn't come either. Peggy Pine who ran the smart clothes shop said that she might have her young niece staying with her. Benny said she didn't want anyone they didn't know, and it was with some relief that they heard the niece Clodagh didn't want to go amongst strangers either.
Her mother had insisted she invite Eve Malone and that was bad enough. Eve was the girl who lived in the convent and knew all the nuns' secrets. Some people at school said look how Mother Francis never gives out to Eve, she's the real pet; others said the nuns had to keep her for charity and didn't like her as much as they liked the other girls whose families all contributed something to the upkeep of St. Mary's.
Eve was small and dark. She looked like a pixie sometimes, her eyes darting here and there, forever watchful. Benny neither liked Eve nor disliked her. She envied her being so fleet and lithe and able to climb walls. She knew that Eve had her own room in the convent, behind the curtain where no other girl was allowed to step. The girls said it was the room with the round window that faced down the town and that Eve could sit at the window and watch everyone and where they went and who they were with. She never went on holidays anywhere, she stayed with the nuns all the time. Sometimes Mother Francis and Mrs. Pine from the dress shop would take her on an outing to Dublin, but she had never stayed away a night.
Once, when they had gone on a nature walk, Eve had pointed to a small cottage and said that it was her house. It stood in a group of small houses, each separate and surrounded by a little stone wall. When she was older she would live in it all on her own and there would be no milk allowed in the door, and no clothes hangers. She would put all her things on the floor because it was hers to do what she liked with.
Some of them were half afraid of Eve, so nobody denied the story, but nobody really believed it either. Eve was so strange, she could make up tales and then, when everyone had got interested, she would say, "Fooled you."
Benny didn't really want her to come to the party, but for once Mother had been insistent.
"That child has no home. She must come to this one when there's a celebration."
a home, Mother, she's got the run of the whole convent."
"That's not the same. She's to come here, Benny, that's my last word."
Eve had written a very neat correct letter saying that she accepted the invitation with pleasure.
"They taught her to write nicely," Eve's father had said approvingly.
"They're determined to make a lady out of her," Mother had said. No one would explain why it seemed so important.
"When it's her birthday she only gets holy pictures and holy water fonts," Benny reported. "That's all the nuns have, you see."
"God, that would turn a few of them over in their graves up there under the yew trees," Benny's father had said, but again there was no explanation of why.
"Poor Eve, what a start for her," Benny's mother sighed.
"I wonder was she born on a Wednesday like Patsy." Benny was struck by something.
"Why would that matter?"
"She'd be miserable. Wednesday's child is full of woe," Benny parroted.
"Nonsense." Her father was dismissive.
"What day was I born on?"
"A Monday, Monday September eighteenth, 1939," her mother said. "At six o'clock in the evening."
Her parents exchanged glances, looks that seemed to remember a long wait for a first and, as it turned out, an only child.
"Monday's child is fair of face," Benny said, grimacing.
"Well, that's true certainly!" her mother said.
"You couldn't have a fairer face than Mary Bernadette Hogan, spinster of this parish, almost ten years of age," said her father.
"It's not really fair, I mean I don't have fair hair." Benny struggled to fit in with the saying accurately.
"You have the most beautiful hair I have ever seen." Her mother stroked Benny's long chestnut locks.
"Do I really look nice?" she asked.
They reassured her that she looked beautiful, and she knew they had bought the dress for her. She had been worried for a bit but now she was certain.
At school next day, even the girls who hadn't been asked to the party wished her a happy birthday.
"What are you getting?"
"I don't know, it's a surprise."
"Is it a dress?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Ah, go on, tell us."
"I don't know yet, really. I won't have it till the party."
"Was it got in Dublin?"
"I think so."
Eve spoke suddenly. "It might have been got here, there's lots of things in Mrs. Pine's."
"I don't think so." Benny tossed her head.
Eve shrugged. "Okay."
The others had gone away.
Benny turned on Eve. "Why did you say it was got in Mrs. Pine's? You don't know, you don't know anything."
"I said okay."
got a frock?"
"Yes, Mother Francis got one at Mrs. Pine's. I don't think it's new. I think someone gave it back because there was something wrong with it."
Eve wasn't apologetic. Her eyes flashed, she was ready with the explanation before anyone else could make the accusation.
"You don't know that."
"No, but I think it. Mother Francis wouldn't have the money to buy me a new frock."
Benny looked at her with admiration. She softened in her own attack.
"Well, I don't know either. I think they got me this lovely velvet one. But they mightn't."
"They got you something new anyway."
"Yes, but I'd really look great in this," Benny said. "It would make anyone look great."
"Don't think about it too much," Eve warned.
"Maybe you're right."
"It's nice of you to ask me. I didn't think you liked me," Eve said.
"Oh, I do." Poor Benny was flustered.
"Good. Just as long as you weren't told to, or anything."
"No! Heavens no!" Benny was far too vehement.
Eve looked at her with a measured glance. "Right," she said. "See you this afternoon."
They went to school on Saturday mornings, and at twelve-thirty when the bell went they all poured out of the school gates. All except Eve, who went to the convent kitchen.
"We'll have to feed you up with a good meal before you go," said Sister Margaret.
"We wouldn't want them to think that a girl from St. Mary's would eat all before her when she went out to tea," said Sister Jerome. They didn't want to spell it out too much for Eve, but it was a big event, the child they had brought up being invited out to a party. The whole community was delighted for her.
As Benny had walked down the town, Mr. Kennedy called her into the chemist's.
"A little bird told me it was your birthday," he said.
"I'm ten," Benny said.
"I know. I remember when you were born. It was in the Emergency. Your Mam and Dad were so pleased. They didn't mind at all that you weren't a boy."
"Did they want a boy do you think?"
"Everyone with a business wants a boy. But I don't know, I've three of them, and I don't think one of them will ever run this place for me." He sighed heavily.
"Well, I suppose I'd better be . . ."
"No, no. I brought you in to give you a present. Here's a pack of barley sugar all for you."
"Oh, Mr. Kennedy . . ." Benny was overwhelmed.
"Not at all. You're a grand girl. I always say to myself, there's that little barrel Benny Hogan coming along."
A bit of the sunlight went out of the barley sugar. Moodily Benny tore the corner off the packet and began to eat a sweet.
Dessie Burns, whose hardware shop was next door to Kennedy's, gave her a shout of approval.
"That's it, Benny, like myself, always head in the nosebag. How are you in yourself these days?"
"I'm ten today, Mr. Burns."
"Jaysus isn't that great, if you were six years older I'd take you into Shea's and put you up on my knee and buy you a gin and It."
"Thank you Mr. Burns." She looked at him fearfully.
"What's your father doing over there? Don't tell me he's after hiring new staff. Half the country taking the emigrant ship and Eddie Hogan decides to expand."
Dessie Burns had small piggy eyes. He looked across the street toward Hogan's Gentleman's Outfitters with huge unconcealed interest. Her father was shaking hands with a man--or a boy, it was hard to see. He looked about seventeen, Benny thought, thin and pale. He had a suitcase in his hand. He was looking up at the sign over the door.
"I don't know anything about it, Mr. Burns," she said.
"Good girl, keep your mind out of business, let me tell you it's a heart scald. If I were a woman I wouldn't have the slightest interest in it either. I'd just get myself a fine eejit of a man to keep me in barley sugar all day."
Benny went on down the street, past the empty shop which people said that a real Italian from Italy was going to open up. She passed the cobbler's shop where Paccy Moore and his sister Bee waved out to her. Paccy had a twisted leg. He didn't go to mass, but it was said that the priests came down to him once a month and heard his confession and gave him Holy Communion. Benny had heard that they had sent to Dublin and maybe even Rome for him to have a dispensation, and it wasn't a question of his being a sinner or outside the Church or anything. And then she was home to Lisbeg. The new dog, which was half collie, half sheepdog, sat sleepily on the step loving the September sunshine.
Through the window she could see the table set for the party. Patsy had cleaned the brasses specially, and Mother had tidied up the front garden. Benny swallowed the barley sugar rather than be accused of eating sweets in the public view, and let herself in the back.
"Not a word out of that dog to let you know I was coming," her mother said crossly.
"He shouldn't bark at you, you're family," Benny defended him.
"The day Shep barks for anything except his own amusement there'll be white blackbirds. Tell me did you have a nice day at school, did they make a fuss of you?"
"They did, Mother."
"That's good. Well they won't know you when they see you this afternoon."
Benny's heart soared. "Will I be getting dressed, like in anything new, before the party?"
"I think so. I think we'll have you looking like the bees knees before they come in."
"Will I put it on now?"
"Why not." Benny's mother seemed excited about seeing the new outfit herself. "I'll lay it out for you on the bed. Come up and give yourself a bit of a wash and we'll put it on."
Benny stood patiently in the big bathroom while the back of her neck was washed. It wouldn't be long now.
Then she was led into her bedroom.
"Close your eyes," said Mother.
When Benny opened them she saw on the bed a thick navy skirt, a Fair Isle jumper in navy and red. A big sturdy pair of navy shoes lay in their box and chunky white socks folded nice and neatly beside them. Peeping out of tissue paper was a small red shoulder bag.
"It's an entire outfit," cried Mother. "Dressed from head to foot by Peggy Pine . . ."
Mother stood back to see the effect of the gift.
Benny was wordless. No velvet dress, no lovely soft crushed velvet that you could stroke, with its beautiful lacy trim. Only horrible harsh rough things like horsehair. Nothing in a misty pink, but instead good plain sensible colors. And the shoes! Where were the pumps with the pointed toes?
Benny bit her lip and willed the tears back into her eyes.
"Well, what do you think?" Her mother was beaming proudly. "Your father said you must have the handbag and the shoes as well, it would make it a real outfit. He said that going into double figures must be marked."
"It's lovely," Benny muttered.
"Isn't the jumper perfect? I'd been asking Peggy to get something like that for ages. I said I didn't want anything shoddy . . . something strong that would stand up to a bit of rough-and-tumble."
"It's gorgeous," Benny said.
"Feel it," her mother urged.
She didn't want to. Not while she still had the velvet feel in her mind.
"I'll put it on myself, Mother, then I'll come and show you," she said.
She was holding on by a thread.
Fortunately, Annabel Hogan needed to go and supervise the shaking of hundreds-and-thousands on the trifle. She was just heading off downstairs when the telephone rang. "That'll be your father." She sounded pleased and her step was quicker on the stair.
Through her sobs, which she choked into the pillow, Benny heard snatches of the conversation.
"She loved it, Eddie, you know I think it was almost too much for her, she couldn't seem to take it all in, so
many things, a bag and shoes, and socks, on top of everything. A child of that age isn't used to getting all that much at once. No, not yet, she's putting it on. It'll look fine on her . . ."
Slowly Benny got off her bed and went over to the mirror on the wardrobe to see if her face looked as red and tearstained as she feared. She saw the chunky figure of a child in vest and knickers, neck red from scrubbing, eyes red from weeping. She was not a person that anyone would ever dream of putting in a pink velvet dress and little pumps with pointed toes. For no reason at all she remembered Eve Malone. She remembered her small earnest face warning her not to think about the dress from Dublin too much.
Perhaps Eve knew all the time, maybe she had been in the shop when Mother was buying all this . . . all this horrible stuff. How awful that Eve knew before she did. And yet Eve had never had anything new, she knew that whatever dress she
got for today would be a reject. She remembered the way Eve had said "They got you something new anyway." She would never let them guess how disappointed she was. Never.
The rest of the day wasn't very clear to Benny because of the heavy cloud of disappointment that seemed to hang over the whole proceedings. For her anyway. She remembered making the right sounds and moving like a puppet as the party began. Maire Carroll arrived wearing a proper party dress. It had an underskirt that rustled. It had come from America in a parcel.
There were games with a prize for everyone. Benny's mother had bought cones of sweets in Birdie Mac's shop, each one wrapped in different colored paper. They were all getting noisy but the cake had to be delayed until Mr. Hogan returned from the shop.
They heard the Angelus ringing. The deep sound of the bells rolled through Knockglen twice a day, at noon and at six in the evening, great timekeepers as much as reminders to pray. But there was no sign of Benny's father.
"I hope he wasn't delayed ramishing on with some customer today of all days," Benny heard her mother say to Patsy.
"Not at all Mam. He must be on his way. Shep got up and gave himself a good stretch. It's always a sign that the master is heading home to us."
And indeed he was. Half a minute later Benny's father came in full of anxiety.
"I haven't missed it, we're not too late."
He was patted down and given a cup of tea and a sausage roll to bolster him up while the children were gathered and the room darkened in anticipation.
Benny tried not to feel the rough wool of the jumper at her neck. She tried to smile a real smile at her father, who had run down the town to be here for the big moment.
"Do you like your outfit . . . your first entire outfit?" he called over to her.
"It's lovely, Father, lovely. Do you see I'm wearing it all."
The other children in Knockglen used to giggle at Benny for saying "Father." They used to call their fathers Daddy or Da. But by now they were used to it. It was part of the way things were. Benny was the only one they knew without brothers and sisters, most of them had to share a mam and a dad with five or six others. An only child was a rare occurrence. In fact they didn't know any, except for Benny. And Eve Malone of course. But that was different. She had no family at all.
Eve was standing near Benny as the cake came in.
"Imagine that's all for you," she whispered in awe.
Eve wore a dress that was several sizes too big for her. Sister Imelda, the only nun in the convent who was good with the needle, had been in her sickbed so a very poor job had been done on taking up the hem. The rest of it hung around her like a curtain.
The only thing in its favor was that it was red and obviously new. There was no way that it could be admired or praised, but Eve Malone seemed to have risen above this. Something about the way she stood in the large unwieldy garment gave Benny courage. At least her horrible outfit fitted her, and though it was far from being a party dress, let alone the dress of her dreams, it was reasonable, unlike Eve's. She put her shoulders back and smiled suddenly at the smaller girl.
"I'll give you some of the cake to take back if there's any left over," she said.
"Thanks. Mother Francis loves a slice of cake," Eve said.
Then it was there, the blurry light of the candles and the singing happy birthday and the big whoosh . . . and the clapping and when the curtains were open again Benny saw the thin young man that her father had been shaking hands with. He was far too old for the party. They must have brought him back to tea with the grown-ups who would come later. He was very thin and pale, and he had a cold hard stare in his eyes.
"Who was he?" Eve asked Benny on Monday.
"He's the new assistant come to work with my father in the shop."
"He's awful isn't he?"
They were friends now, sitting on a school-yard wall together at break.
"Yes, he is. There's something wrong with his eyes I think."
"What's his name?" Eve asked.
"Sean. Sean Walsh. He's going to live in the shop."
"Ugh!" said Eve. "Will he go to your house for meals?"
"No, that's the great thing. He won't. Mother asked him to come to Sunday lunch and he made some awful speech about not assuming, or something."
"Yes, well whatever it is he's not going to do it and it seems to mean coming to meals. He'll fend for himself he said."
"Good." Eve approved of that.
Benny spoke hesitantly.
"Mother said . . ."
"If you'd like to come anytime . . . that would be . . . it would be all right."
Benny spoke gruffly as if fearing the invitation would be spurned.
"Oh, I'd like that," Eve said.
"Like to tea on an ordinary day, or maybe midday dinner on a Saturday or Sunday."
"I'd love Sunday. It's a bit quiet here on Sundays, a lot of praying you see."
"Right, I'll tell her." Benny's brow had cleared.
"Oh, there is one thing though . . ."
"What is it?" Benny didn't like the intense look on Eve's face.
"I won't be able to ask you back. Where they eat and I eat, it's beyond the curtain you see."
"That doesn't matter at all." Benny was relieved that this was the only obstacle.
"Of course, when I'm grown up and have my own place, you know, my cottage, I could ask you there," Eve said earnestly.
"Is it really your cottage?"
"I told everyone." Eve was belligerent.
"I thought it might only be a pretend cottage," Benny said apologetically.
"How could it be pretend? It's mine. I was born there. It belonged to my mother and my father. They're both dead, it's mine."
"Why can't you go there now?"
"I don't know. They think I'm too young to live on my own."
"Well, of course you're too young to live on your own," Benny said. "But to visit?"
"Mother Francis said it was sort of serious, my own place, my inheritance she calls it. She says I shouldn't be treating it as a dolls' house, a playing place when I'm young."
They thought about it for a while.
"Maybe she's right," Benny said grudgingly.
"She could be."
"Have you looked in the windows?"
"Nobody's gone and messed it all up on you?"
"No, nobody goes there at all."
"Why's that? It's got a lovely view down over the quarry."
"They're afraid to go there. People died there."
"People die everywhere." Benny shrugged.
This pleased Eve. "That's true. I hadn't thought of that."
"So who died in the cottage?"
"My mother. And then a bit later my father."
Benny didn't know what to say. This was the first time Eve had ever talked about her life. Usually she flashed back with a Mind Your Own Business, if anyone asked her a question.
"But they're not in the cottage, they're in heaven now," Benny said eventually.
"Yes, of course."
There seemed to be another impasse.
"I'd love to go and look through the window with you sometime," Benny offered.
Eve was about to reply when Maire Carroll came by.
"That was a nice party, Benny," she said.
"I didn't know it was meant to be fancy dress though."
"What do you mean?" Benny asked.
"Well, Eve was in fancy dress, weren't you Eve? I mean that big red thing, that wasn't meant to be ordinary clothes was it?"
Eve's face tightened into that hard look that she used to have before. Benny hated to see the expression come back.
"I thought it was quite funny myself," Maire said with a little laugh. "We all did when we were coming home."
Benny looked around the school yard. Mother Francis was looking the other way.
With all her strength Benny Hogan launched herself off the wall down on Maire Carroll. The girl fell over, winded.
"Are you all right Maire?" Benny asked, in a falsely sympathetic tone.
Mother Francis came running, her habit streaming behind her.
"What happened child?" She was struggling to get Maire's breath back, and raise her to her feet.
"Benny pushed me . . ." Maire gasped.
"Mother, I'm sorry, I'm so clumsy, I was just getting off the wall."
"All right, all right, no bones broken. Get her a stool." Mother Francis dealt with the panting Maire.
"She did it purposely."
"Shush, shush, Maire. Here's a little stool for you, sit down now."
Maire was crying. "Mother, she just jumped down from the wall on me like a ton of bricks . . . I was only saying . . ."
"Maire was telling me how much she liked the party Mother. I'm so sorry," Benny said.
"Yes, well Benny, try to be more careful. Don't throw yourself around so much. Now, Maire, enough of this whining. It's not a bit nice. Benny has said she was sorry. You know it was an accident. Come along now and be a big girl."
"I'd never want to be as big a girl as Benny Hogan. No one would."
Mother Francis was cross now. "That's quite enough Maire Carroll. Quite enough. Take that stool and go inside to the cloakroom and sit there until you're called by me to come away from it."
Mother Francis swept away. And as they all knew she would, she rang the bell for the end of break.
Eve looked at Benny. For a moment she said nothing, she just swallowed as if there were a lump in her throat.
Benny was equally at a loss, she just shrugged and spread out her hands helplessly.
Suddenly Eve grasped her hand. "Someday, when I'm big and strong, I'll knock someone down for you," she said. "I mean it, I really will."
"Tell me about Eve's mother and father," Benny asked that night.
"Ah, that's all long ago now," her father said.
"But I don't know it. I wasn't there."
"No point in raking over all that."
"She's my friend. I want to know about her."
"She used not to be your friend. I had to plead with you to let her come to the party," Mother said.
"No, that's not the way it was." Benny couldn't believe now that this was so.
"I'm glad the child's coming here to her dinner on Sunday," Eddie Hogan said. "I wish we could persuade that young skinnymalinks above in the shop to come too, but he's determined not to trespass, as he calls it."
Benny was pleased to hear that.
"Is he working out well, Eddie?"
"The best you ever saw, love. We'll be blessed with him I tell you. He's so eager to learn he almost quivers like Shep there, he repeats everything over and over again, as if he's learning it off by heart."
"Does Mike like him?" Benny's mother wanted to know.
"Ah, you know Mike, he likes nobody."
"What does he object to?"
"The way Sean keeps the books. God it's simple to understand, a child could do it, but old Mike has to put up a resistance to everything. Mike says he knows everyone's measurements, and what they paid and what they owed. He thinks it's like a kind of insult to his powers to write things down."
"Couldn't you keep the books, Mother?" Benny suggested suddenly.
"No, no, I'd not be able to."
"But if it's as simple as Father says . . ."
"She'd well be able to but your mother has to be here, this is our home, she runs it for you and me, Benny."
"Patsy could run it. Then you wouldn't have to pay Sean."
"Nonsense, Benny," her father said.
But she wasn't to be stopped. "Why not? Mike would like Mother being in there. Mike loves Mother, and it would be something for Mother to do all day."
They both laughed.
"Isn't it great to be a child," said her father.
"To think that the day isn't full already," agreed her mother.
Benny knew very well that her mother's day was far from full. She thought that it might be nice for Mother to be involved in the shop, but obviously they weren't going to listen to her.
"How did Eve's parents die?" she asked.
"It's not a thing to be talking about."
"Why? Were they murdered?"
"Of course not." Her mother sounded impatient.
"Why then . . . ?"
"Lord, why, why, why," her father sighed.
"At school they're always telling us to ask why. Mother Francis says that if you have a questioning mind you get to know all the answers." Benny was triumphant.
"Her mother died giving birth, when Eve was being born. And then a bit later, her poor father, may the Lord have mercy on him, went out one evening with his wits scattered and fell over the cliff into the quarry."
"Wasn't that desperate!" Benny's eyes were round with horror.
"So, it's a sad story, all over long ago, nearly ten years ago. We don't start bringing it all up over and over."
"But there's more to it isn't there . . . there's a kind of secret."
"Not really." Her father's eyes were honest. "Her mother was a very wealthy woman, and her father was a kind of handyman who helped out in the convent, and did a bit of work up at Westlands. That caused a bit of talk at the time."
"But it's not a secret or a scandal or anything." Annabel Hogan's face was set in warning lines. "They were married and everything in the Catholic Church."
Benny could see the shutters coming down. She knew when to leave things.
Later she asked Patsy.
"Don't ask me things behind your parents' back."
"I'm not. I asked them, and this is what they told me. I just wanted to know did you know any more. That's all."
"It was before I came here, but I heard a bit from Bee Moore . . . Paccy's sister, she works in Westlands you see."
"What did you hear?"
"That Eve's father did a terrible act at the funeral, cursing and shouting . . ."
"Up in the church, cursing and shouting . . . !"
church, not the real church, in the Protestant church, but that was bad enough. You see Eve's mother was from Westlands, from the big house beyond. She was one of the family and poor Jack, that was the father, he thought they'd all treated her badly . . ."
"That's all I know," Patsy said. "And don't be asking that poor child and upsetting her. People with no parents don't like endless questions."
Benny took this as good advice not only about Eve, but about Patsy herself.
Mother Francis was delighted to see the new friendship developing, but far too old a hand in dealing with children to say so.
"Going down to the Hogans again are you?" she said, sounding slightly put out.
"Do you mind?" Eve asked.
"No, I don't mind. I can't say that I mind." The nun tried hard to conceal her enthusiasm.
"It's not that I want to be away from here," Eve said earnestly.
Mother Francis felt an urge to take the child in her arms as she used to do when Eve was a baby given into their care by the accident of her birth.
"No, no of course child, strange though this place is, it is your home."
"It's always been a lovely home."
The nun's eyes filled with tears. "Every convent should have a child. I don't know how we're going to arrange it," she said lightly.
"I wasn't a nuisance when I arrived?"
"You were a blessing, you know that. It's been the best ten years St. Mary's ever had . . . you being here."
Mother Francis stood at a window and watched little Eve go down the long avenue of the convent out to Sunday lunch on her own with the Hogans. She prayed that they would be kind to her, and that Benny wouldn't change and find a new friend.
She remembered the fights she had to keep Eve in the first place, when so many other solutions were being offered. There was a cousin of the Westwards in England who would take the child, someone who would arrange Roman Catholic instruction once a week. The young Healys who had come to start the hotel were reported to be having difficulty in starting a family. They would be happy to have Eve in their home, even after their own children came along, if they did. But Mother Francis had fought like a tiger for that small bundle that she had rescued from the cottage, on the day she was born. The child they had reared until some solution could be found. Nobody had seen that Jack Malone's solution would involve throwing himself over the quarry one dark night. After that there had been no one with better claim to Eve than the nuns who had reared her.
It was the first of many Sunday dinners in Lisbeg for Eve. She loved coming to the house. Every week she brought something which she arranged in a vase. Mother Francis had shown her how to go up the long windy path behind the convent and pick catkins and wild flowers. At the start she would rehearse arranging them with the nun so that she would do it well when she got to the Hogans, but as the weeks went by she grew in confidence. She could bring armfuls of autumn colors and make a beautiful display on the hall table. It became a ritual. Patsy would have the vases ready to see what Eve would bring today.
"Don't you have a lovely house!" she would say wistfully and Annabel Hogan would smile, pleased, and congratulate herself on having brought these two together.
"How did you meet Mrs. Hogan?" she would ask Benny's father. And "Did you always want to run a business?" The kinds of questions Benny never thought to ask but was always interested in the answers.
She had never known that her parents met at a tennis party in a county far away. She had never heard that Father had been apprenticed to another business in the town of Ballylee. Or that Mother had gone to Belgium for a year after she left school to teach English in a convent.
"You make my parents say very interesting things," she said to Eve one afternoon as they sat in Benny's bedroom, and Eve marveled over being allowed to use an electric fire all for themselves.
"Well, they've got great stories like olden times."
"Yes . . ." Benny was doubtful.
"You see the nuns don't have."
"They must have. Surely. They can't have forgotten," Benny said.
"But they're not meant to think about the past, you know, and life before Entering, they really start from when they became Brides of Christ. They don't have stories of olden days like your mother and father do."
"Would they like you to be a nun too?" Benny asked.
"No, Mother Francis said that they wouldn't take me, even if I did want to be a nun, until I was over twenty-one."
"She says it's the only life I know, and I might want to join just because of that. She says when I leave school I have to go out and get a job for at least three years before I even think of Entering."
"Wasn't it lucky you met up with them," Benny said.
"Yes. Yes, it was."
"I don't mean lucky that your mother and father died, but if they had to wasn't it great you didn't go somewhere awful."
"Like in stories with wicked stepmothers," Eve agreed.
"I wonder why they got you. Nuns usually don't get children unless it's an orphanage."
"My father worked for them. They sent him up to Westlands to earn some money because they couldn't pay him much. That's where he met my mother. They feel responsible I think."
Benny was dying to know more. But she remembered Patsy's advice.
"Well, it all turned out fine, they're mad about you up there."
"Your parents are mad about you too."
"It's a bit hard sometimes, like if you want to wander off."
"It is for me too," Eve said. "Not much wandering off above in the convent."
"It'll be different when we're older."
"It mightn't be," Eve said sagely.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we have to show them we're terribly trustworthy or something, show them that if we are
allowed to wander off, we'll wander back in good time."
"How could we show them?" Benny was eager.
"I don't know. Something simple at the start. Could you ask me to stay the night here, for one thing?"
"Of course I could."
"Then I could show Mother Francis that I'd be back up in the convent in time for mass in the chapel, and she'd get to know I was to be relied on."
"Mass on a weekday?"
"Every day. At seven."
"It's quite nice. The nuns sing beautifully, it's nice and peaceful. Really I don't mind it. Father Ross comes in specially and he gets a lovely breakfast in the parlor. He says the other priests envy him."
"I didn't know that . . . every day."
"You won't tell anyone will you?"
"No. Is it a secret?"
"Not a bit, it's just that I don't
tell anything you see, and the community likes that, they feel I'm part of them. I didn't have a friend before. There wasn't anyone to tell."
Benny smiled from ear to ear. "What night will you come? Wednesday night?"
"I don't know, Eve. You don't have any smart pajamas or anything to be going to stay with people. You don't have a good sponge bag, things that people who go visiting need."
"My pajamas are fine, Mother."
"You could iron them, certainly, and you have a dressing gown." She seemed to be faltering. "A sponge bag though?"
"Could Sister Imelda make one for me? I'll do extra clearing up for her."
"And what time will you come back?"
"I'll be at my prie dieu
in time for mass, Mother."
"You won't want to get up that early if you're visiting people." Mother Francis's face was soft.
"That's what I'd want, Mother."
It was a great evening. They played rummy with Patsy in the kitchen for a long time because Mother and Father went across the road to Dr. and Mrs. Johnson's house. It was a supper to celebrate the christening of their new baby.
Eve asked Patsy all about the orphanage, and Patsy told more details than she had ever told Benny. She explained how they used to steal food, and how hard it was when she came to the Hogans, her first job, to realize she didn't have to take any stray biscuit or a fistful of sugar and put it into her apron.
In bed that night Benny said in wonder, "I don't know why Patsy told us all that. Only the other day she was saying to me that people with no parents didn't like being asked questions."
"Ah, it's different with me," Eve said. "I'm in the same boat."
"No you're not!" Benny was indignant. "Patsy had nothing. She had to work in that awful place and get nits and steal and be beaten for wetting the bed. She had to leave there at fifteen and come here. It's not a bit like you."
"No. We are the same, she has no family, I don't. She didn't have a home like you do."
"Is that why you told her more than you told me?" Benny had been even more astounded at the questions Patsy felt free to ask. Did Eve hate the Westwards who were so rich for not taking her into the big house? Eve didn't, they couldn't, they were Protestants, she explained. Lots more, things Benny wouldn't have dared to ask.
"You don't ask things like that," Eve said simply.
"I'd be afraid of upsetting you," Benny said.
"You couldn't upset a friend," Eve said.
Benny and Eve, who had lived all their lives in the same village, were each amazed at the things the other didn't know about Knockglen.
Benny didn't know that the three priests who lived in the presbytery had been given the game of Scrabble, which they played every night, and sometimes rang the convent to ask Mother Francis questions like how you spelled "quixotic" because Father O'Brien was going to get a triple word score.
Eve hadn't known that Mr. Burns in the hardware shop was inclined to take to the drink or that Dr. Johnson had a very bad temper and was heard shouting about God never putting a mouth into the world that he didn't feed. Dr. Johnson was of the view that there were a lot of mouths, especially in the families with thirteen children, that God had forgotten to feed.
Benny didn't know that Peggy Pine was an old friend of Mother Francis, that they had been girls years ago and that when she came to the convent she called Mother Francis Bunty.
Eve hadn't known that Birdie Mac who ran the sweetshop had a man from Ballylee who had been calling for fifteen years, but she wouldn't leave her old mother and the man from Ballylee wouldn't come to Knockglen.
It made the town far more interesting to both of them to have such insights. Particularly because they knew these were dark secrets not to be shared with anyone. They pooled their knowledge on how children were born, and hadn't any new enlightenments to offer. They both knew that they came out like kittens, they didn't know how they got in.
"It's got something to do with lying down one beside the other, when you're married," Eve said.
"It couldn't happen if you weren't married. Suppose you fell down beside someone like Dessie Burns." Benny was worried.
"No, you have to be married." Eve knew that for certain.
"And how would it get in?" It was a mystery.
"It could be your Little Mary," Benny said thoughtfully.
"What's your Little Mary?"
"The bit in the middle of your tummy."
"Oh, your tummy button is what Mother Francis calls it."
"That must be it," Benny cried triumphantly. "If they all have different names for it, that must be the secret."
They practiced hard at being reliable. If either said she would be home at six o'clock then five minutes before the hour struck and the Angelus rang she would be back in place. As Eve had anticipated, it did win them much more freedom. They were thought to be a good influence on each other. They didn't allow their hysterical laughing fits to be seen in public.
They pressed their noses against the window of Healy's Hotel. They didn't like Mrs. Healy. She was very superior. She walked as if she were a queen. She always seemed to look down on children.
Benny heard from Patsy that the Healys had been up to Dublin to look for a child to adopt but they hadn't got one because Mr. Healy had a weak chest.
"Just as well," Eve had said unsympathetically. "They'd be terrible for anyone as a mother and father." She spoke in innocence of the fact that Knockglen had once thought that she herself might be the ideal child for them.
Mr. Healy was much older than his wife. It was whispered, Patsy said, that he couldn't cut the mustard. Eve and Benny spent long hours trying to work out what this could mean. Mustard came in a small tin and you mixed it with water. How did you cut it? Why should you cut it?
Mrs. Healy looked a hundred but apparently she was twenty-seven. She had married at seventeen and was busy throwing all her efforts into the hotel since there were no children.
Together they explored places where they had never gone alone. To Flood's, the butchers, hoping they might see the animals being killed.
"We don't really want to see them being killed do we?" Benny asked fearfully.
"No, but we'd like to be there at the beginning so that we could if we want to, then run away," Eve explained. Mr. Flood wouldn't let them near his yard so the matter didn't arise.
They stood and watched the Italian from Italy come and start up his fish-and-chip shop.
"Weel you leetle girls come here every day and buy my feesh?" he said hopefully to the two earnest children, one big, one small, who stood watching his every move.
"No, I don't think we'll be allowed," Eve said sadly.
"Why is that?"
"It would be called throwing away good money," Benny said.
"And talking to foreign men," Eve explained to clinch matters.
"My seester is married to a Dublin man," Mario explained.
"We'll let people know," Eve said solemnly.
Sometimes they went to the harness maker. A very handsome man on a horse came one day to inquire about a bridle that should have been ready, but wasn't.
Dekko Moore was a cousin of Paccy Moore's in the shoe shop. He was very apologetic, and looked as if he might be taken away and hanged for the delay.
The man turned his horse swiftly. "All right. Will you bring it up to the house tomorrow, instead," he shouted.
"Indeed I will sir, thank you sir. I'm very sorry sir. Indeed sir." Dekko Moore sounded like a villain who had been unmasked in a pantomime.
"Lord, who was that I wonder?" Benny was amazed. Dekko was almost dead with relief at how lightly he had escaped.
"That was Mr. Simon Westward," Dekko said, mopping his brow.
"I thought it must be," Eve said grimly.
Sometimes they went into Hogan's Gentleman's Outfitters. Father always made a huge fuss of them. So did old Mike, and anyone else who happened to be in the shop.
"Will you work here when you're old?" Eve had whispered.
"I don't think so. It'll have to be a boy, won't it?"
"I don't see why," Eve had said.
"Well, measuring men, putting tape measures round their waists, and all."
"But you're the boss's daughter, you wouldn't be doing that. You'd just be coming in shouting at people, like Mrs. Healy does over in the hotel."
"Um." Benny was doubtful. "Wouldn't I need to know what to shout about?"
"You could learn. Otherwise Droopy Drawers will take over."
That's what they called Sean Walsh who seemed to have become paler, thinner and harder of the eye since his arrival.
"No, he won't, surely?"
"You could marry him."
"Ugh. Ugh. Ugh."
"And have lots of children by putting your belly button beside his."
"Oh, Eve, I'd hate that. I think I'll be a nun."
"I think I will too. It would be much easier. You can go any day you like, lucky old thing. I have to wait until I'm twenty-one." Eve was disconsolate.
"Maybe she'd let you enter with me, if she knew it was a true vocation." Benny was hopeful.
Her father had run out of the shop and now he was back with two lollipops. He handed them one each proudly.
"We're honored to have you ladies in our humble premises," he said, so that everyone could hear him.
Soon everyone in Knockglen thought of them as a pair. The big stocky figure of Benny Hogan in her strong shoes and tightly buttoned sensible coat, the waiflike Eve in the clothes that were always too long and streelish on her. Together they watched the setting up of the town's first fish-and-chip shop, they saw the decline of Mr. Healy in the hotel and stood side by side on the day that he was taken to the sanatorium. Together they were unconquerable. There was never an ill-considered remark made about either of them.
When Birdie Mac in the sweetshop was unwise enough to say to Benny that those slabs of toffee were doing her no good at all, Eve's small face flashed in a fury.
"If you worry so much about things, Miss Mac, then why do you sell them at all?" she asked in tones that knew there could be no answer.
When Maire Carroll's mother said thoughtfully to Eve, "Do you know I always ask myself why a sensible woman like Mother Francis would let you out on the street looking like Little Orphan Annie," Benny's brow darkened.
"I'll tell Mother Francis you wanted to know," Benny had said quickly. "Mother Francis says we should have inquiring minds, that everyone should ask."
Before Mrs. Carroll could stop her Benny had galloped out of the shop and up the road toward the convent.
"Oh, Mam, you've done it now," Maire Carroll moaned. "Mother Francis will be down on us like a ton of bricks."
And she was. The full fiery rage of the nun was something that Mrs. Carroll had not expected and never wanted to know again.
None of these things upset either Eve or Benny in the slightest. It was easy to cope with Knockglen when you had a friend.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy. . Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.