For Better or Worse



Seamus did not consider himself a brave man at the best of times, and this was not the best of times.  He wove a nervous, unsteady path through the dark hallway of his little cottage, and carefully climbed the stairs.  The house was silent apart from the heavy ticking of his grandmother's mantelpiece clock. Seamus reached the top of the stairs and turned into his bedroom, where he undressed quietly and slid into bed. The warm haze of the evening's ale enveloped him, and he let out a deep satisfied sigh.

"And what time do you call this?" growled a familiar voice next to him.  Seamus started.

"Aw, Mae, don't be getting all riled up again." he pleaded. “Padraig wanted to celebrate, is all, and bought us all a few rounds.”

“What’s he got to celebrate then?”

“His missus left him.”

"Very funny, Seamus O’Donnell,” said his wife. “Useless, feckin’ drunks, all of yous. I don't know why I didn't listen to me mam.  I could have had me a fancy computer programmer like she wanted, but no, I chose the bloody butcher."  She turned angrily to face the other side of the bed and was soon sleeping again.

Seamus listened unhappily to her breathing getting deeper, until finally a steady drone filled the room.  He searched for the glow of the evening that had descended on him just moments before, but it was gone. He gradually drifted off to a troubled sleep.

They were arguing again.  This time in the kitchen.  But the Seamus of his dreams was not having any of it.  He faced off to his feisty young wife and gave as good as he got, deftly parrying the lunges of her rolling pin with a cast iron skillet. But then she let her guard down and he lunged forward, hitting her head with a solid and very satisfying thwack, and watched as she crumpled to the ground, dead.

The dreams varied at this point, ranging from dismay to outright jubilation, but tonight he simply dragged her silently into his workshop where he proceeded to butcher with expert skill.  A nice stew, he thought, perhaps with a little thyme, but it would need slow cooking - she was a tough bird after all.  He chuckled in his sleep.

The 4am alarm shrilled, sending his dreams scattering.  Seamus rolled, groaning, out of bed, careful not to wake his wife, and dressed silently in the dark before staggering downstairs to put the kettle on.  He stood quietly in the gloom watching dawn slowly warm the grey, house-lined horizon of their little sea-side village of Kinvarra.

Another day.

~
The door chimed cheerfully as it opened.

"Ah, good morning Mrs O'Hara," said Seamus more brightly than he felt.

"Good morning, Seamus.  Tis a lovely one, to be sure."

"That it is. That it is.  Will it be your usual today?"

The tweedy, middle-aged woman beamed. "No.  We will be having a dinner party this weekend. Twenty people."

"Twenty people!" exclaimed Seamus. "That is a big do.  What is the occasion, if I might ask?"

"Oh, just a gathering of friends.  Nothing much.  One has to do these things, you know."

"Ay, that one does, that ones does."

He took her order and arranged to deliver it that afternoon.

"Who was that, Seamus?" shouted Mae from the kitchen as door chimes faded behind the departing customer.

"Mrs O'Hara."

"I thought it was. You were ever so friendly again." The sentence hung for a moment like a poisoned dagger in the air.  Seamus opted not to reply."Seamus?"

"Yes, Mae?"

"I am not an idiot."

"Yes dear, I know you are not."

"That woman is trouble, and I won't have you cosying up to her."

"Mae, I was just being polite."

"There's polite and there’s polite.  That woman stole her last husband from poor old Mrs Connelly. She'll not have you."

Seamus felt an unexpected glow of pleasure.

"No," continued his wife.  "This is my butcher shop."

~
The Saturday morning passed without further ado and Seamus locked the shop door, gratefully flipping the sign from Open to Closed.  He returned the meat from the counters to the fridge and cleaned the little shop before heading to the kitchen where Mae stood busy at the cooker.

“Smells great, Mae. What is it?”

“Stew.”

“Oh.”

She turned sharply.  “What’s wrong with stew?  You like stew.”

“Nothing, Mae,” replied Seamus hastily. “I love stew. Don’t mind me. I’m just a little tired.”

“I’m not surprised, getting home at God alone knows what hour of the night.”

Seamus sliced a thick wedge of bread and cheese and sat down gloomily at the table.  “I think I’ll do my deliveries earlier today.” he said.  “There’s not too many.”

“I’m coming with you,” replied his wife.

“What?”

“You heard me.  I’ll not have you going to that woman’s house on your own.  And anyhow, I want another driving lesson.”

Searing panic filled Seamus’ brain.  “You’re not still wanting to learn to drive, are you, Mae?”

“Surely I am,” she replied tartly.  “You’ll not be around forever, you know.”

“That’s charming.”

“It’s a fact Seamus.  I read it in the Women’s Weekly today: men die younger than women.”

“I’m not surprised,” muttered Seamus under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, dear.  Nothing.”
~

Seamus loaded his little white van with the afternoon’s deliveries, and then stood outside, patiently smoking a cigarette while Mae got dressed.  The sun hung cheerfully in a rare cloudless Irish sky, accompanied by a cacophony of bird chatter from the Doyles’ overhanging birch tree.  A large glutinous bird dropping landed next to him on the bonnet of his van.

“Feckin’ birds!” grumbled Seamus, wiping the mess with his handkerchief.

“Ready!” exclaimed Mae, beaming excitedly as she closed the front door behind her and scampered along the gravel path.  She had discarded her house clothes and was wearing a faded pair of jeans, black plimsolls and a bright pink pullover.  Her lips sparked in the sunlight.

Sean looked at her in wonder.  “Is that makeup you’re wearing?”

Mae scowled.  “A girl always has to look her best. Is there a problem?”

“Not at all,” he replied. “Just unexpected.  Anyway, I suggest we do the deliveries, and then let you drive a bit?”

“Actually, I think I’d like to drive now.”

“Now?  In the village?”

“Why not?  I have driven before.”

“I remember.  And so does the rest of the village.”

“Seamus!  I thought I did very well for my first lesson.  I’m sure that old wall was going to fall down anyway.”

“All I’m saying, Mae, is that it might be safer to drive on the country roads. You know, until you get warmed up a bit.”

She agreed reluctantly and the couple headed off: Seamus staring grimly ahead, dreaming of stew, while Mae sang Whitney Houston to the radio at the top of her out of tune voice, the warm sea-breeze splaying her fiery red hair behind her.  The deliveries were thankfully soon done and Seamus pulled the van into a small parking lot overlooking the bay.  The ocean below twinkled in the sunlight.

“Right,” he said as Mae settled into the driver’s seat.  “Do you remember what I told you about the clutch?”

“Yes, I know, Seamus. Press the clutch when you change the gear.  Press the clutch … press the clutch. You said it often enough last time.  Such a silly system.  Why can’t they build cars to know that I’m changing gears?”

“They do, Mae, it’s called an Automatic, and is for idiots.  This is a manual gearbox.”

She harrumphed and started the car with a roar.

“Easy does it!” shouted Seamus.  “Just a little petrol.”

Mae crunched the gear lever into first.  The van lurched forward and stalled.

 “You forgot the clutch, Mae.”

“I know!” she shouted angrily. “Stop getting at me!”

She started the car a second time, and eased the van into first gear.

“Good.  Now let the clutch out slowly, while applying the accelerator.  Easy does it.”

The van juddered and roared, and was soon racing in first gear towards a nearby picnic table.  Mae twisted the steering wheel to the right, narrowly missing it, and somehow managed to exit the parking lot onto the little country lane heading back towards Kinvarra.

“Bejesus, Mae!” shouted Seamus, gripping the dashboard.  “Slow down a little, will you?”  His wife eased off the accelerator, reducing the engine noise to a complaining whine.  “Right, now we’ll try second gear,” said Seamus.

“Clutch!”  But he was too late.  Mae had ground the gear lever into second.  The van hurtled along the lane, hedge-rows flying by with unaccustomed haste.

“Wheee!!!” shouted Mae over the roar of the engine.  “I’m driving!”

Seamus continued to hold on for dear life to the dashboard, repeating “Take it easy now” over and over again, but was ignored.  The little van screeched around the corners of the little lane, causing dopey-eyed sheep to scarper. Mae gave her husband a triumphant glare.

They didn’t see the tractor until it was right upon them.  May screamed, but Seamus grabbed the steering wheel, yanking it to the left.  The van ploughed through the hedge and into a rutted field, jolting angrily over the bumps towards the nearby sea-cliff edge.

“Stop the car!” shouted Seamus desperately, but his wife had floored the accelerator was holding the steering wheel with white-knuckled panic.  “Mae!  Stop! For God’s sake!” He then lunged for the hand-break, and pulled it up hard.  The van skidded to a protesting halt, finally ending up perched perilously over the cliff edge, two wheels spinning angrily in the wind.

Mae sobbed loudly, still clutching the steering wheel.

“Mae,” said Seamus quietly, touching her arm and pulling her back into her seat.  “Be still now. Don’t lean forward and no sudden moves, OK?  We need to get out.  Turn the engine off, then try to open your door, but slowly does it.”

He leaned back into his seat while she switched off the ignition, wiped her tears on her pullover, and opened the door.  The van yawed forward threateningly. May screamed.

“Close it!” shouted Seamus.  She did, and the van tilted back reluctantly.

“We’ll have to try mine.”  He managed to carefully open the passenger door without affecting the balance of the van.

“Now Mae,” he said. “I need you to climb over me. Very slowly, OK?”

His wife unbuckled her seat belt and carefully eased herself over him.  She then quickly jumped out of the van onto the turf.  The van groaned and started to tilt forward again.  Seamus unbuckled his seatbelt frantically and scrambled out of his seat, just in time to watch the van tumble over the cliff, plunging to a noisy end on the rocks below.

The trembling young couple lay huddled together on the cliff edge.

“Seamus?” said May after a few minutes.

“Hmmm?”

“We almost died there.”

“Ay, it was a close one.”

She paused for a moment, then continued, “Seamus, you know what I always say about me mam?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve decided that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“I agree,” replied Seamus, grinning.

May looked up at her husband and slapped him playfully. “Why, Mr O’Donnell, I should … oh shite!”

“What is it?”

“I forgot to turn off the cooker!  The stew will be ruined.”

Seamus kissed his wife gently on the forehead. “Don’t worry about it, love.  I’m anyway not in the mood for stew anymore.”

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