When she was a plump but attractive lass of forty-eight, she and her daughter took a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. The water was as smooth as marble. Maura loved nothing better than having a glass of sherry and looking overboard at the water where Napoleon and Alexander the Great had once sailed. She and Michele, went their own ways. Her daughter was working on her third poetry book, “Messenger of the Gods.”
As long as you were aboard the Holiday Cruise ship, your life was not your own. Things were as regimented as if you were in the army. Her daughter refused to do what she was told. But since she was one of the paid speakers – reciting half an hour of her poetry – Michele could do as she darn well pleased.
Maura, as always, did pretty much as she was told, being the “good girl” mama had taught her to be.
This was her first cruise and definitely the last.
She liked the early dinners. Five o’clock. Good clothes were required. She sashayed into the huge dining room – far larger than the one on the Titanic – and saw that everyone was seated at their table.
Five people she found remarkably droll, dull and even creepy.
“Why, Maura,” said Diana, “lovely evening gown…and matching earrings too…how quaint.”
Maura bowed her head in thanks while putting her napkin in her lap. When, she wondered, would Diana’s husband start making his crude jokes.
Expensive chandeliers shone on the high ceiling that even Liberace would have approved of. Maura looked around to see if the servers were on their way.
“I’m hungry, too,” said Donovan, a single man who sat next to her. He reached out to pat her hand, but she quickly withdrew it, pretending to scratch her forehead.
The man’s Irish accent was virtually unintelligible. No wonder he wasn’t married.
The salads were on their way.
“I’m so hungry I could eat…” That was Diana’s husband speaking and she quickly put a yellow paper napkin across his mouth.
Maura, an artist, noticed how lovely the yellow napkin was.
“Damian,” she said to the Indian-looking server, “might I have several of those yellow napkins as souvenirs?”
“Certainly, Madame,” he said, removing several from his pocket.
She tucked them into her large indigo blue pocketbook she had placed on the floor.
After a dessert of pecan pie – Maura only had vanilla ice cream on top, no whipped cream – she turned toward Donovan.
“How ‘bout if we go for a walk?”
Whatever his words were, she led him to the top deck as if he were a little boy, and they stood looking over the railing.
He grabbed her shoulders. “My god, you might fall in!”
She quickly moved toward him and flung her arms on his shoulders. They embraced. She caressed his face, soft, and then moved her hands to his thinning black hair.
The sky was getting darker. Maura pointed at the stars. Donovan grabbed her fingers and kissed them.
“Oh, my beloved,” she found herself murmuring, as if she were in a movie, “you know so much.”
They looked over at the sea. White yachts sailed along, their silver railings catching the last of the day’s light.
Maura took Donovan’s hand and led him inside and bid him sit down at a table.
“I want to know all about you,” she said.
A cloud of pink floated by. Her daughter Michele.
“Hey, Mom,” she said without stopping.
Maura was sipping hot camomile tea, while Donovan ordered a Diet Coke.
“Tell me all about yourself. Every little thing.”
She leaned forward so she could understand him over his mumbles.
“I ain’t much good, Miss. Never amounted to anything. Aunt Guffrie sent me on this trip as I ain’t got much money. Only, well, in American money, nearly a million dollars in my savings cuz I don’t do nuffin for fun since I ain’t married.”
She nearly gasped but kept her mouth shut.
“How, then, do you earn your keep?” she asked.
“Head postman in Killarney.”
She patted his hand, which was cold from the Diet Coke.
“You done good, Donovan. You done good and you’re a good man.”
Later that night, she met her daughter Michele at the small library aboard the ship. It had mahogany paneling, writing tables, laptops you could borrow for an extraordinary fee, all the while you felt the calm rocking of the sea.
“Who’s that dude you’re hanging out with, Ma?”
“Oh, that’s Donovan, a very nice bachelor.”
“Why don’t you have a fling with him,” suggested Michele. “Nothing to lose. You could even invite him to your gallery in New Hope.”
“No way. I think it’s terrible all these people who have flings on board a ship – married people, especially – and then forget about them forever.”
An entire year passed. Maura was at her New Hope gallery. It was one of those Indian summer days in November. She looked out the big picture window onto clouds skittering by. Maybe she would go across the street and order an ice cream cone with vanilla mint chocolate. She knew she wouldn’t, though. Once she started working, she had to finish.
What was this? A thin envelope from a post office box in Killarney, Ireland? Oh dear god, she thought. Not Donovan. Whatever did he want? She put it aside, not daring to open it.
Of course it kept calling to her like a piece of music she couldn’t get out of her mind.
In barely legible handwriting, slanting to the left, he had written:
“Maura, enclosed you will find a one-way airline ticket that will take you to Killarney. Then you must take a lorry or walk to my home at 22 Derby Lane, First Floor, Killarney, Republic of Ireland.”
What on earth should she do? If only she had someone to discuss it with.
Ages ago, when she was raising Michele and her brother, Bobby, she had consulted a counselor, a very wise man named Dr. Alex. She thought briefly of calling the man, but remembered what he told her.
“I’m always in your back pocket. Consult me whenever you need me.”
She slept much of the way on the six-hour flight to Ireland. The flight attendants spoke English, of course, in a variety of accents. They were very gracious, men and women both, in bright red uniforms, with scarves around their necks. If there were terrorists aboard, they could have been strangled.
“Oh, be quiet,” Maura chastised herself, “and read your book.”
She had brought along some paperbacks she owned, as she didn’t know how long she would be there. One of the books was called “A Judgement in Stone” by Ruth Rendell. On its side was a stuck-on label that read, “Holiday Cruises.”
Yes, she had stolen it from the cruise ship. Right there in the library where she and Michele had spoken.
Maura even felt guilty when this Ruth Rendell, whom she knew nothing about, died of a stroke in 2015.
She balanced herself carefully as she walked out of the plane, in not much of a hurry. Why hadn’t Donovan met her? A huge canvas back pack bearing the words, “National Audubon Society” was strapped to her back, her answer to waiting at the baggage compartment.
Yellow lorries stood outside. Some cabbies were out of the cars chatting with one another, others sat inside, heads back, snoring. She went up to one man, a short fellow, standing alone and asked if he knew where Derby Avenue was.
“Hop in, mum, and I’ll drive ya.”
“Oh, I’ve gotta stretch my legs, sir. Been on the plane for six whole hours.” He gave her directions, pointing here and pointing there.
She set off, finding it difficult to walk again, as she swayed back and forth. The streets were cobbled. Tiny gray bricks. She hefted up her backpack to steady herself. A plane or two soared in the air, catching the gleaming sunlight.
Birds were singing. Of course! Why shouldn’t there be birds in Ireland?
She rapped on the door which had a Christmas wreath on it. A few red berries, fake, stuck out as if they wished to be in a cherry tart with flaky pastry.
She rapped again.
Finally she heard someone approaching.
The inner lock was undone and clicked open.
A man in a wheelchair sat there.
Good Lord, she thought in a flash. Whatever happened to the mumbling man?
“Maura!” he exclaimed. “I’m so glad you’re here. Come in. Come in.”
It was a two-bedroom apartment. Her room faced a small river she saw meandering in the distance. His faced the cobblestones on the street. Medicine bottles stood near his hospital bed. She learned that nearly everything was paid for socialized medicine.
Marx? Lenin? Stalin? She wondered.
There was a knock on the front door and a nurse in a white uniform let herself in and introduced herself.
“I’m MaryPat,” she said.
“This is like Call the Midwives, if you don’t mind me saying,” said Maura, looking at the nurse and at Donovan. She reminded herself she must get a good look at him. And find out what he wanted from her.
The nurse explained he was dying of emphysema. Little filiments on his lungs ceased to function and it was getting increasingly difficult to breathe. “You know the saying,” she said. “Good days and bad.”
Maura reached over and touched his hand. “I hope this is a good day, dear,” she said.
Nurses, both male and female, were there from 9 in the morning until 5 at night.
The evening of her arrival, Maura went into his bedroom and pulled out a chair from his desk and pushed it over to his bed.
He motioned for her to sit on his hospital bed. She carefully climbed up the side, then planted a kiss on his pale lips.
“You will be my companion,” he mumbled, “until death calls.”
She furrowed her brow.
“And that will be…?”
“When I decide,” he said.
“May I read to you before you sleep?” she asked him.
A couple of cars passed by on the street outside his window. She closed the shutters and took down “Poetry of William Yeats” from his shelf.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadow deep…
They looked at one another, but said not a word.
Every day, announced Donovan, there was something new he wanted to experience. It was Maura who went and fetched it for him. Plus a few surprises of her own.
One day, a knock on the door produced a young trumpeter, Seth O’Brian, from church. In his short curly black hair, young Seth played some Henry Purcell. “He’s an old feller, sir,” said Seth. “Born in 1659!”
Maura saw to it that Donovan had bags of soft licorice from the candy store down the street. And chocolate croissants and blueberry tea from Sullivan’s Tea Kettle not far away.
Every day she feared Donovan would say, “Enough!” She was like the Scheherazade of The United States of America.
Was it her imagination or was she falling in love with him? With his shiny bald head whose freckles she kissed? His ivory-white hands that she held in her own, when his trembled from the medication? From the way he listened to her every word or the simple rhythm of her speech? From the man’s innate goodness and tenderness?
It was a warm night when he summoned her, with his tinking little bell, from her bedroom.
She was there in a moment.
“I feel like going for a walk,” he said. “If your pajamas are warm, keep them on.”
She nodded her head.
She pushed his wheelchair toward the back door and they bumped onto the patio.
“Comfy?” she asked.
“Always,” he said, “when you’re near.”
Now he was becoming a poet himself.
The little river gleamed in the distance. And all those stars and constellations whose names he knew as well as the districts in his post office.
She came up beside him and they walked together.
“Wish we had more time,” he said, “but I’ll bid you adieu now. A last kiss so I may think of you when I take my final breath.”
She had no idea what he was talking about.
She kissed him, deeply and tenderly, and Donovan was off.
Turning on the engine of his wheelchair, a loud roar like a motorbike pierced the air. He sailed like a clipper ship into the black foaming water beneath the vast expanse of stars.
He was gone.