From In the Shadow of the Judas Tree.
Somewhere in the distance, a whistle blew. The carriage door closed, sealed him from the hubbub in the station. Outside, Summer was downcast, her arms folded, a shield against the knot in her stomach he knew would match his. Click-clack. The wheels turned and gathered momentum. She ran along the length of the platform waving. Then she was gone, leaving only her image captured in his mind.
James looked up as the door between the carriages slid open. Hung on square shoulders, a tweed jacket measured to within an inch of perfection announced its owner as a man of means. Beneath a dense mop of fair hair, a youthful face smiled as he stumbled up the swaying aisle. The man, drawing nearer, James realised the boyish looks were a facade, hiding a man of at least fifty. James nodded as the stranger slid onto the seat opposite.
‘Drumcreevan,’ he said, proffering his hand, and held James’ in a firm handshake. ‘Charles Drumcreevan. And you are?’
‘Father, I presume. Any relation to Brennan’s Bread?’
‘No relation. My family are farmers.’ James would have preferred a solitary journey home, and time to reflect on unexpected happiness.
‘That’s a shame.’ Lying back against the seat, Charles brushed grime from the knee of his slacks, a casual, practised flick of his hand. ‘My baker declines any further custom from me. A trifling sum I assured him would be paid in due course. The short memory of people is a tad annoying. My grandfather funded his forebears business, and now, he insults me over a debt of three thousand.’
‘Ungrateful.’ James nodded, stifling a grin. That is a lot of bread.
‘Quite. Tell me, James. May I call you, James?’
‘Certainly, Charles,’ James said, gobsmacked at his unintended aristocratic mimicry.
‘Excellent. What is the main difference between Protestants and Catholics? Answer me, my learned priest.’
Reluctant to discuss religion, James replied as best he could without being rude. ‘Apart from obvious religious differences, I suspect you have your own observations to share.’
‘Quite perceptive. Money. Catholic people have a little. Protestants still pretend they have vaults full of the bloody stuff. Old money, James, is long gone and with it, the alliances, inbreeding and civilised society.’
‘Forgive my coarseness, but let me recount a tale from my youth. My mother insisted I marry my cousin, Winifred. “Family tradition,” she said, standing beneath a portrait of The Drumcreevan, my great-great-great and a load more greats, grandfather. Bugger if I could argue, not with him glaring down at me. Six years old and I was engaged to a baby.’
‘Six!’ James laughed, and then held his hand over his mouth. ‘Sorry, but that’s funny. Getting engaged so young is unusual.’
‘Not as strange as my wedding night,’ he replied. His grin suggested he wished to tease James with subjects not usually discussed with priests. ‘Just about to saddle up, I looked down at Wimpy’s eager face, as she readied to ooh and agh. Protestant ladies of breeding practiced such things, you know.’
‘I didn’t know.’ James reached up and opened the sliding window. The rush of cool air calmed his desire to kill any further conversation.
‘I saw my grandfather Cecil’s eyes staring up at me. The same mischievous glint, the same narrow, upturned nose, and the same-shaped lips that used to curl around the bugger’s cigar. My shotgun was primed and ready to fire. Otherwise, I’d have leapt from the four-poster bed and hurled myself out the window. By God, she’s a true Drumcreevan; kept me saddled up till the bloody cock crowed at dawn.’
James pulled the Bible from his rucksack and slid it across the table toward Charles. ‘Protestants have a reputation for being honest. Swear on this Bible that your tale is true.’
Drumcreevan leaned forward. ‘Ha!’ His laugh turned heads at the far end of the carriage, and the thud with which his left hand landed on the good book drew a gasp from the ladies in the adjacent seats. ‘I swear it all to be true, so help me God, Jesus, the Saints and all that malarkey.’ He pushed the Bible back to James and folded his arms.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Bah, bloody priests.’ With his right hand on the Holy Book, he whispered. ‘All true, except for the bit about dawn.’
‘I’m sure your wife doesn’t look like a man.’
A smile curled Charles’ lips. ‘My wife, even in the autumn of her life, is one of the most beautiful women on these islands.’
‘Are the rest of your family barmy?’ James said.
Charles chuckled. ‘Grandfather Cecil was the first lamb in a long line of black sheep. Truth be told, his four elder sisters were manlier. On the birth of Cecil, his father, Harold, filled the wine cellar with the finest of French wines. It is said, the party lasted a month. Do you like wine, James?’
‘I don’t drink.’
‘Good God, are you dead?’
‘I may be by the time the history lesson ends.’
‘Cecil, or Cecily, as our family called him, liked playing with his sisters’ dolls. When Harold tried to teach him to shoot, he dropped the gun, darted inside, and hid under the bloody bed. A Drumcreevan poof. Harold castigated his wife’s bloodline, and she blamed the wet nurse. Between bouts of gout, Harold took up residence in the wine cellar, convinced he would never hold a grandchild bearing the Drumcreevan name.’
‘See, you shouldn’t drink,’ James said. Despite his reluctance, he’d succumbed to the charm of the stranger.
‘Ha! Cecily turned out to be more Cecil than many of my shadier ancestors. Thinking their virtue safe, enchanted by his poetry, ladies and wenches were lured to his bed. It seems all those years of undressing dolls paid dividends, the randy bugger. I’ve numerous uncles and aunts who do not exist on the official family tree. Paying them off nearly bankrupted the family. Records of them have been kept.’
‘Really?’ Surprised at this, James posed the question more in disbelief than curiosity.
‘Damn right, we kept records. Drumcreevan started the practice hundreds of years ago. He insisted his offspring spread their lust, and paid the families of any progeny handsomely. “Every clan needs an army.” That is our family motto, generally not mentioned in public, of course.’
‘Have you many children?’ The moment he asked, he knew the question carried unintentional daggers.
Charles stared out the window. ‘Not Wimpy’s fault. It seems the Drumcreevan line stops with me.’
‘Sorry.’ James wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. ‘I can now answer your first question. Protestants talk more than Catholics.’
‘Touché,’ Charles said. He swivelled as the carriage door opened. ‘Refreshments arrive.’ He stood and stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, searched through his jacket and slumped onto the seat, seeming quite perplexed.
‘Charles, will you dine with me?’ James pulled a five-pound note from his wallet and dropped it on the table. ‘Coffee and cake as a down payment for amusing stories, well told.’
‘Even in these troubled economic times one can always depend on the charity of Rome. Thank you.’
Charles placed the order, handed over the fiver and graciously accepted the change which he slipped into his shirt pocket. He pulled a battered silver hip flask from his jacket and screwed off the lid. ‘It’s the last of the family silver, old boy. A nip of brandy in your coffee?’
‘No thank you, Charles.’
‘Tickets please.’ The uniformed ticket collector shut the door with a thud.
Faster than a seasoned Guinness drinker, Charles downed the coffee, stripped off his jacket, folded it neatly, and laid it against the corner of his seat. With his head lying against the jacket, he crossed his arms, winked at James, and closed his eyes.
Glad to accept a moment of silence, James stared out the window, watching the countryside whiz by to the clicketty-clack of the wheels beneath. So much adventure in a single day, the day he had planned to die. Perhaps destiny had sent Charles to distract him during the journey home. A colourful character, from a once wealthy background, relying on his wits to survive. I too must grasp opportunities, seize them, and live life as it is meant to be lived.
‘Hi,’ James said.
‘Sleeping beauty,’ the ticket collector said, taking James’ ticket and punching a hole in it. ‘Sir!’ A gentle nudge. ‘Ticket please,’ he shouted, shaking Charles.
‘What? What?’ Charles slowly opened his eyes and delivered the grand finale. ‘Blast it, man. Must you be so rude?’
‘Only doing me job,’ he said, extending his hand. ‘Ticket please.’
Out came the hip flask, a half smoked cigar and a handful of business cards, all dropped onto the table. ‘Here we are,’ Charles said, jubilantly, sliding a gold card across to the ticket collector. ‘Father Brennan, you take this one.’
Lord Charles Drumcreevan. Drumcreevan Manor, nestled under an embossed coat-of- arms. The card impressed James, but he wondered how the railway employee would react.
The ticket collector pushed up his peaked cap, scratched his head with the ticket-punch, and tossed the card back on the table. ‘I’d only ruin your card if I punched a hole in it. Twenty-eight years’ service, only two more till I retire, and my unblemished record will remain that way. Ticket, please.’
‘My good man, if you don’t accept my card, I’ll be doing the punching.’
‘Shirr, either you have a proper ticket or ya buy one.’
‘Lord Charles, permit me,’ James said, pulling out his wallet. ‘Ouch!’ He reached down and rubbed his throbbing ankle that Charles had kicked.
‘My dear ticket collector, rest your overworked legs for a minute,’ ordered Charles, smoothing the faux-velvet seat beside him.
‘Ticket, please, me Lordship, Shirr.’ Clack, clack sang the punch.
‘Which railway line is this?’ said Charles.
‘Dublin-Sligo, Shirr, as, your Lordship, well knows.’
Sipping his coffee, James observed the master craftsmen at work, the determined twinkle in the ticket-collector’s eyes. Charles probed in a casual, assured manner. This railway employee had likely seen every trick possible, and stood stoically, resolved to deflect any suggestion other than the purchase of a ticket.
‘The Drumcreevan Line is its original and more romantic name. Designed and built by my great, great-grandfather. Good God, he would turn in his grave, if he knew one of his kin was expected to carry cash about their person.’
‘I am due a break, about . . . now,’ the ticket collector said. He dropped onto the seat beside Charles. ‘I’m Dan Flynn, a student of history during my free time.’ To emphasise this sudden, unexpected civilian status, he removed the cap and laid it on the table. ‘Now, Charles Hector Harold Drumcreevan, you were saying?’
‘Ahem, my bloody throat is a little dry,’ Charles rasped, reaching for his flask. ‘Bugger, what was I saying?’
‘Sir, your great, great-grandfather built, as you would say, bugger all. His coffin contains empty wine bottles. The good Father should take your confession.’
‘Rubbish,’ Charles said.
Flynn lifted his cap and wiped the railway badge with the sleeve of his shirt. ‘His body was never recovered after he fell overboard whilst bound for South Africa.’
‘You seem to know more than you should. Where are you from, Flynn?’
‘Boyle, County Roscommon. I’ll disembark there, as did my father and his father.’
‘As you are a history student, I should imagine you can trace your family back a long way.’
‘I can, Sir. Back as far as….’
‘To Drumcreevan,’ Charles said. Taking one sip, he handed the flask to Dan, who repeated the toast.
Dan lifted the gold card, punched a hole and stuck it in his shirt pocket. ‘Take care, Father. Don’t believe anything that comes out my distant cousin’s mouth.’ Locking eyes with Charles, they shook hands. Sticking his cap back on his head, Flynn left, calling, ‘Tickets, please.’
Charles looked at James, and they both burst out laughing. With his aristocratic nose inches away from James’ ear, he whispered. ‘Brennan’s Bread. Bring two loaves with you when you and your gorgeous girlfriend come and visit Druncreevan Manor. My castle is at your disposal, a refuge from those who would gaze down their snouts at you. Bring extra clothes. The bloody place is artic even in the summer.’
‘You do, and she is very pretty. Good God, what you do or don’t do is no concern of mine. I’ve an empty, decaying bloody mansion in dire need of many things, above all, the sound of young people laughing. Do you fish?’
‘Good. Does your, ahem, sister drink wine?’
‘I think she might.’
‘It’s decided then. Call me in the next week or two,’ ordered Charles, as he pulled on his jacket. ‘Agreed?’
‘Boyle is the next station. Au revoir, Padre Brennan.’
He stood and turned to the elderly women in the adjacent seats. ‘I can’t sit with a homosexual priest for a moment longer. Buggering buggers, the lot of them. Good afternoon, ladies.’