Paraffin Lamp Days

That Friday Feeling

Was Nora just doing a kind, neighbourly act every Friday or had she another motive?

Nora gave a quick look at herself in the mirror on the front wall of the kitchen before grabbing the canvas message bag. She liked Fridays, even though all she did was cycle to the village for provisions. It made a change from the routine of looking after the few livestock and fowl and she nearly always had a chat with somebody along the way. She didn’t look too bad, she decided for a woman on the wrong side of forty; there was only an odd grey hair in her foxy curls and her wide generous mouth was always ready to smile – or give a quick, snappy retort too if necessary! She’d had the same routine for years, since her mother’s time, when she used to collect the pension for her. Now she was all alone. Her sisters and brothers had long since flown the coop and both of her parents gone to heaven. Her time was her own, but she still liked to have a schedule. Wheeling her bicycle out of the shed, she set off down the boreen that connected to the road. She’d better not forget Jack Noonan’s order from the village. It hadn’t changed in ten years. Everyone knew that he was lonely since his wife passed away. She’d heard that he never went anywhere, not even to Mass. Now, outside his gate, she shouted

‘Are you there? What do you want from the shop?

‘Will you stop shouting, for Christ’s sake,’ returned a grumpy, whiskered man, as he emerged from his thatched home, his braces hanging loose and a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.

‘Do you want the whole parish to hear you? Don’t you know damn well what I want, a half pound of ham and twenty Players, same as always? Here’s the money – and don’t forget to bring back the change!’

‘Well, it would be nice if you kept a civil tongue in your head, Jack Noonan, since I’m doing you a favour. I just thought that you might suddenly have lost the run of yourself and ordered a pot of strawberry jam. And don’t worry that I’ll steal your few pence. It wouldn’t take me far.’

What a contrary old fellow he’d become, she thought. He couldn’t be more than fifty two or three but he looked a lot more. He’d let himself go badly since Angela died. The cancer took her in six weeks and Jack had railed against God and man, letting the house and farm go to rack and ruin. And Nora got no thanks either for her kind act every Friday. All he ever did was bark at her. But hadn’t her mother always told her that luck always comes back from any good we do? She couldn’t see any sign of it. The only bit of good fortune in her life, so far, had been falling in love with Ted Donovan, a shy, gentle boy from a cottage down the road. He was a lovely whistler and a beautiful dancer. His people were honest, labouring stock but not good enough for Nora’s family. He wanted her to go to England with him but this idea was quickly knocked on the head by her parents. Even though it all happened years ago, there were still days when she cried for not standing up to them. No good dwelling on the past thought Nora as she manoeuvred the bicycle up the village street and secured it outside the grocer’s shop which doubled as a post office.

‘Well, Nora, how are you today?’ asked the kindly, middle-aged shopkeeper, his face lighting up with pleasure at the sight of her.

‘No good complaining, Jim. Nobody would listen to me,’ laughed Nora airily. ‘You know what I want, the usual list and Jack Noonan’s Players and ham.’ Is that all he lives on, I wonder, she suddenly thought to herself. ‘Oh go on Jim, give me a half dozen bananas too, I feel like treating myself today.’

‘There’s a dance in the hall on Sunday night. Would you be thinking of going? Phil Conroy’s band is playing.’ There was an almost pleading note in Jim’s voice as he filled her message bag.

‘Sure, you’d never know. I might go if it’s a fine night. There’s nothing as bad as arriving at the hall with damp hair and the makeup running down one’s face. Nobody might ask me to dance at all then,’ laughed Nora.

‘I would,’ said Jim quietly. ‘I hope you can make it.’

She had a hill on the way home and she strained her body over the handlebars to give her leverage. The wind was rising and she wanted to get back before the rain.

‘Are you there?’ shouted Nora impatiently from the road. ‘Come out quick and take your messages.’

‘What’s the matter with you girl, will you calm down,’ growled Jack, a glint in his eye, as he sauntered out to the gate, his old cloth cap pulled down over his forehead.

‘I’ve better things to do than to be hanging around your gate and the rain threatening,’ said Nora crossly, positioning the bicycle for take-off.

‘Well, do you know what Nora McGrath, but you’re a contrary old baggage. You didn’t get that red hair for nothing No wonder you’re still on the shelf because no man could put up with you. And what’s this banana doing in with my ham?’

‘As a matter of fact, for your information, Jim in the Post Office just asked me to the dance in the village hall on Sunday night. So that shook you – and give me my banana,’ fumed Nora.

‘Jim Maguire! Sure that fellow couldn’t dance to save his life. Is that the best you can do? I saw him at my niece’s wedding and he hadn’t a step in his foot.’

‘And I suppose you’re Fred Astaire! ’ snorted Nora scornfully. ‘And maybe for the future, you should get your own messages and not be annoying me with your old foolish talk.’

Nora was furious as she pedalled the last bit of the boreen. Who did he think he was, jeering her like that? She was glad to be living on her own and not to have to bother with a fool of a man around the place. Still, she turned up at the hall on Sunday in her best grey wool dress and black patent shoes, her hair newly washed. She regretted it the minute she saw all the girls half her age, sitting on the bench along by the wall. The men were standing at the opposite side and when the music started they charged across the floor to get the best looking girls. She heard herself agreeing to dance with a middle-aged man, clean-shaven and neatly dressed. She thought he looked vaguely familiar but she couldn’t place him.

‘Well, how are you enjoying the dance, Nora?’ asked her companion sardonically.

‘God almighty, it – it – can’t be you Jack Noonan,’ cried Nora, leaning back to get a better look at her partner’s face! ‘You look so – so different. What on earth are you doing here?’ She started to back away, confused and bewildered, her mouth open in astonishment.

‘Yerra will you come back here to me girl and steady yourself. Haven’t I as much right as anybody else to be at a dance? I cleaned myself up and decided to take my chances. I can’t have that fool of a Jim Maguire going off with my best girl.’

‘What did you say – and where did you, where did you – learn to dance like that?’ croaked Nora as they glided in perfect unison to ‘Love Letters in the Sand?’ They may have been the oldest couple in the hall but they could certainly still dance as good as the best of them.

‘There’s many a thing you don’t know about me, my girl,’ returned Jack. ‘And just because I shout at you doesn’t mean I don’t admire you. Mind, you have a bad temper and a wild way with you. But I suppose I could learn to put up with that.’

‘The cheek of you! I’m not asking you to put up with anything. I’ve a good mind to leave you here in the middle of the floor and make you a laughing stock.’

‘Yerra, will you whist woman, I’m only teasing,’ smiled Jack gripping her tightly around the waist and giving her a friendly squeeze. ‘I’ve been watching you for a while now. You’re the only one worth her salt around here. I like a woman with a bit of fire and passion.’

‘By God, if you liked me you certainly had a very strange way of showing it. Sure, you couldn’t even be civil to me, half the time. I know you fixed a puncture on my bike that wet evening long ago. And you helped me to sell the cattle when mother died and – and – you even buried my poor Shep last winter but…

‘I’ve been such a fool. I shut myself away after Angela died but life goes on. To tell you the truth, I’m sick to death of my own company,’ muttered Jack under his breath.

‘You’ll have to make a lot of changes now mind,’ began Nora slowly. ‘You’ll have to shave yourself every day for a start and throw away them filthy cigarettes and dump that dirty cap and, and…stop shouting at me.’

‘Take no notice of that! I only shout at people I like. You’re a fine figure of a woman, and we’ll make a grand couple if you’ll agree to walk out with me,’ teased Jack. ‘We might even buy a small motor car and you can throw away that bicycle altogether. You’re a danger to humanity the way you career down them hills! Do you have any brakes at all on that bloody thing?’

Nora stole a look at Jack on the quiet. He had kind eyes. She liked the craggy look of him too and his strong, capable weather beaten hands that could be gentle, like when he’d looked after her poor dog last year. She knew, deep down, he had a good heart. If she was honest, she had always enjoyed the arguing and banter between them. As the band played the last dance, Nora couldn’t believe the night was over.

‘Did I waste all my time on you? What about poor Jim, I forgot…’

‘Never mind that amadáun. I saw him throwing a few longing looks at you during the evening but sure he’d never be able to manage you like I would when you’d fly into a rage. The poor man would be a wreck in no time.’

‘You’d better watch your tongue now, Jack Noonan,’ said Nora pretending to march off in a huff.

‘Come back here to me Nora. Sure I have the bicycle, with a good flash lamp, and we won’t feel the road home together,’ said Jack slyly.

What! Did you just say that you have a bicycle? If you have, why the hell didn’t you go for your own blooming messages and not be annoying me?’ Nora roared. ‘And tell me this. Why was it always just the Players and ham? Do you eat anything else except ham?’

‘I sneaked down for the rest of my provisions during the week ’cause I didn’t want you to stop calling on Fridays,’ confessed Jack sheepishly.

‘Well! Do you know what – you’re a right old fraud! But I have plenty of time to get my own back. And if you think that just because you’re cycling home with me tonight that I’m going to give you a kiss, you’d better think again.’

‘The thought never entered my mind girl. Why would I want to do a daft thing like that? There will be plenty of time for all that later on. And for God’s sake, will you stop calling me Jack Noonan, now that you’re nearly my girl. Darling will do just fine.’

What fun she’d have, thought Nora at uncovering all the crusty layers, one by one, to reach, what she suspected, was a very soft core.

In the meantime, she’d give him hell!