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Gerry McCullough    award-winning Irish writer & poet

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Short Stories: Dark Night

This story was published, (with 23 others), as ‘The Greatest Gift of All’, in the People’s Friend Annual, 2008 , in December 2008.

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My grandmother and my grandfather met when she was sixteen, and he a year or two older.

It was at a tent mission, which meant a gospel meeting in a large tent in a field miles from anywhere. They had each gone along with friends of their own age.

It was one of the free entertainments on offer in those days before the First World War. You could be sure of meeting a large crowd of young people, who would seldom be gathered together in one place otherwise.

The speaker was a gifted orator. At the close, when he called for people to come forward as a sign that they wanted to give their lives to the Lord, my grandmother Rose Doherty stood up and walked to the front.

While she was waiting afterwards for her turn to pray with one of the counselors, she noticed a young man standing next to her, also waiting. This was my grandfather, John Henry McCormick.

Coming out of the tent, he spoke to her.

"Beautiful evening, isn’t it?"

Rose agreed. The clear starry night was very beautiful.

"Come from round these parts?"

"Dromore," she said. This was a village some five or six miles away.

"A fair distance," said John Henry. "If you’d like some company for the walk home, I’d be glad to go along with you."

Rose had plenty of friends who had come with her and would have kept her company on the way back. But for all that, she accepted the offer.

What did they talk of on that first walk?

I don’t know, and couldn’t guess. My grandparents never talked to me about their personal feelings.

Perhaps the great emotional experience each had just been through remained something private, not to be spoken of.

Or perhaps with each other, though with no-one else, they were able to share their secrets.

I don’t know.

For the next year, they met regularly, and both their families seemed happy enough with the understanding that had come about between them.

Then John Henry went away to fight in the war.

For over four years, Rose waited for him.

He was a Volunteer, you understand. Irishmen, even in the north of the country, were not conscripted in those days.

It was the first real disagreement Rose had had with him, and although it was made up before he sailed, it left a sour taste with her.

She could see no reason for my grandfather to go, and indeed held a strong conviction that all war was wrong.

But John Henry held an equally strong belief that it was his duty to go and fight. And although Rose was no moral weakling, and was not to be persuaded out of her conviction, my grandfather, a man of great strength of purpose, remained firm in his.

He survived the war unharmed, and in this he was unusual enough among the Irish who fought.

He came back to find himself with no job, and little prospect of one, and to a country which was to be torn with passion and violence for many years to come.

This time, he saw eye to eye with Rose, and had no desire to be involved, on either side, in the bitterness which was pulling his country apart.

It was not easy to keep out. In their church, among his army friends, in the linen factory where he eventually got a job, pressure was heavy on them to go with the crowd.

In the end, John Henry felt obliged to leave the Presbyterian church which he and Rose had joined after the Mission. He threw in his lot with a small group who called themselves ‘brothers’, later known generally as the Plymouth Brethren, who believed, like Rose, that all fighting was wrong.

John Henry, with his war record, sat awkwardly among them in some ways. But that was the past, and for the present, he and they were in whole-hearted agreement.

With the job in the linen factory for security, my grandparents decided to marry. They had known each other for nearly seven years by now, and although it would not have been uncommon, in those days of poverty, for a couple to wait for much longer, no-one could accuse them of rushing into it.

Before the first year of marriage was up, my grandmother was pregnant, and in due course bore a fine, healthy, female child. The girl was christened Mary, and both my grandparents were delighted with her, although Rose knew well that John Henry’s heart had been set upon a son.

"Time enough for that," was all he said to her upon the subject, and when Mary was coming three, and Rose was pregnant again, he made his pleasure obvious. Rose hoped for his sake that she would have a boy this time, though, for herself, she was unconcerned.

When the second girl, my mother Betty, was born, John Henry said little. He still expressed his satisfaction in public, and indeed I believe he loved the child dearly, but to Rose he said, "It’s the Lord’s will, Rosie, and when he means me to have a son, He’ll give me one."

The next pregnancy was slower in coming. After a few years, Rose had almost stopped looking for it, until in the end she was taken by surprise.

This time she prayed for a boy, and a boy it was - but not without a long, hard struggle. Rose came back almost from the brink of the grave, and learned that there would be no more children for her.

It was a blow, but not a serious one, for hadn’t they got Mary and Betty, and now wee Johnny, too?

He was a beautiful baby, plump and fair and always laughing. John Henry was full of joy every time he came into the house and saw him, and Rose loved him as every mother loves her newest baby, in spite, or perhaps because, of the pains she had been to to have him.

As for Mary and Betty, their noses were not put out of joint, for they were delighted to have a new baby to play with, and were the envy of all their friends.

In the evenings, after his day’s work, John Henry would sit with the baby on his knee, teaching him his first words, and younger in spirit himself than Rose had seen him since he came back from the war.

"What are you teaching the youngster, Johnny?" she asked him on one occasion. "Sure, he can say ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ as right as rain already, and him only ten months!"

"Amen!" John Henry told her. "I’m teaching my boy to say ‘Amen!’, Rosie."

Rose went back into the kitchen laughing, and ten minutes later came running out in a panic at John Henry’s roar. But she need not have worried. It was no calamity.

"He said it, Rosie! He said it!"

And sure enough, the baby was making a sound that was near enough to ‘Amen’ to pass muster.

John Henry swung the child up into the air, and danced about the room with him.

"That’s the quare, fine boyo!" he exulted. "You’ll never go far wrong, Johnny, if you can say, ‘Amen! So be it!’, to the Lord’s will."

Rose couldn’t help laughing at the pair of them. Wee Johnny was laughing, too, as his father swung him about.

"Will you give over, for dear sakes, and sit down here to your supper while I put the child to bed!" she exhorted him, and presently peace was restored.

Johnny continued to grow and thrive. Rose nursed him through a bad bout of chicken pox, and John Henry sat up at night with her until the worst was over.

Then there was the time when he fell, chasing the hens, and gashed his leg badly. But it healed up safely, and he was none the worse for it.

It was just before Johnny’s third birthday that scarlet fever broke out in the village.

Mary and Betty brought the news home from school. Lizzie Edwards and Tommy Murphy were both off, and said to be very bad.

Teacher had said that school would have to be closed because of the risk of infection - "What’s that, mammy?" - and the Nurse would be coming round to check up on all the children over the next few days.

Rose, while naturally sorry for the Edwards and Murphy families, and unable to keep entirely free from worry about her own three, wasn’t unduly concerned.

Nurse, when she came to look at the girls, was cheerful and reassuring.

"No trouble there, any road," she said with a wide beam. "Two healthy weans as any I’ve seen the day. Now, just let me have a wee skelly at the child, before I go, and that’ll be us all set up."

Johnny was coughing slightly, and didn’t seem just his usual self.

Nurse frowned when she heard him, and looked serious for a moment.

Then she smiled again, and spoke heartily.

"Well, probably nothing much wrong there either. Still, put him to bed and keep him warm, Rosie, and give him a spoonful of the bottle I’m going to leave you. And I’ll mention to the doctor to maybe call by and have a wee look at him."

Something cold settled on Rose’s heart.

Johnny was put to bed, and began to get worse.

Rose battled in vain with her fears, and dreaded above all telling John Henry when he got home from the linen factory.

But, to her relief, he took it well, and indeed became a source of strength to her over the next days, as they nursed their son together.

He was confident that Johnny would get better.

"The Lord took me safely through a war where men were dying all around me, Rosie, and he gave me a job in these days when two men out of three have to manage without one. And he gave me a son when I had almost despaired of having one. I won’t stop trusting him now, at the first thing that goes wrong. Johnny’ll be all right, you just see."

But Johnny continued to get worse.

Eventually Rose gathered up her courage to say to her husband,

"John, it may be that we’re not to keep him."

But she got no further.

John Henry turned to her with a look on his face which she had not seen since their first quarrel, years ago, when she had tried to persuade him not to enlist.

"Where’s your faith, woman?" was all he said.

Then he went out of the room, and for some time after she could hear him tramping about overhead.

Then there was silence.

Johnny continued to get worse. The doctor and the nurse came often, and looked grave.

Rose knew that there was little hope.

But John Henry battled on in his stubborn refusal to be defeated.

Johnny would recover.

He would accept no other possibility.

Johnny lived for another week. The nurse was with him when he died, and she held Rose in her arms by way of comfort.

Rose felt her heart wrenched within her. She could say nothing. It was not until much later that she came to the relief of tears.

But John Henry, after one low moan which seemed to force itself from his mouth against his will, ran from the house, and kept on running.

Ran until his strength failed.

Ran until his breath came in ragged gasps, and his head was bowed, and his face was white with exhaustion.

He came at last, as darkness fell, to the shore.

The tide was in, and water lapped against his feet.

It seemed to him that it might be some relief to the flames which roared burning about his spirit, to wade in until the waters covered him for ever.

He sat on an outcrop of rock at the shoreís edge, and there were no words in his mind, and nothing that he could say.

The stars came out and the night grew cold, and still he felt nothing.

He had not reached the stage of questioning as yet, for it seemed to him that there could be no-one there to question.

And since his whole life had been built on the presence of someone else who occupied the universe, the emptiness all around him was indescribably dreadful to him.

The pain of Johnny’s loss was swallowed, now, in this yet greater loss.

He had no words to say this to himself, nothing but the pain.

Night wore on, and John Henry sat and looked at the sea.

The moon shone on the water. He had watched it before, and always thought it beautiful. Now he felt no stirring of pleasure at the sight.

He could smell the fresh tang of the sea.

He had made no movement for so long that presently a dark shape heaved itself out of the water, unto the rocks where he sat, and flopped down close by him. It was a seal.

He sat motionless, and the seal rested beside him.

Then it slid from the rock, and swam back into the deep water.

At last the sky began to change. Streaks of light crept in, slowly at first, then spreading ever wider and more clearly.

John Henry stirred. He realized for the first time that he was stiff and sore.

All round him came the faint sounds of a new day.

First one, then another, the birds awoke, lifted up their voices, tried out their first cautious notes.

Then the dawn chorus broke out on all sides.

John Henry lifted his head to listen.

Something pulled at his heart.

He felt a sharp pressure, as if it was about to burst.

For the first time, since that one choked moan, uttered by Johnny’s bed, he cried aloud.

"Why? Why?"

Then he buried his face in his hands, and wept as he had not wept since childhood.

As he wept, he heard a voice speaking to him, and it seemed that there was help and comfort in the words.

John Henry took the comfort as it was offered to him.

What the words were that came to John Henry as he sat alone on the shore, I have no way of knowing.

He told those words to no-one else, not even to Rose.

The sun came up in its full strength, and soon Rose came searching for the husband who had been gone all night.

She found him whole and at peace, and as he saw her come nearer, he stood up and put his arms round her and hugged her tightly.

"Let’s go home, Rosie," he said. "I could do with a cup of tea."

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