It’s no minor matter to be the sergeant in a small town in 1970. No trifle. This is something your mother might remind her friends about as they chat after Mass. Twelfth in Ireland in the sergeant’s exams.
People call you Sergeant, even when you’re outside your house on a day off, digging the weeds in your sleeveless jumper, or when you head out to the bog with your sleán to cut the turf for the winter, or when you slip into the graveyard to tend the plot you bought for yourself two or three years back. Hello, Sergeant. Grand day now.
You’re a man of some consequence, and it wouldn’t do to let yourself down by impropriety, undue levity or a dim light on your bicycle, though you also have a patrol car, for these are days when wild men roam the countryside by night, training for the cause. It’s a Ford Cortina.
The soundtrack for many in your small town is Philomena Begley and Big Tom, but for others, it’s Woodstock, and you worry about these youths with their hair down below the collar. You fear that reefer madness might overtake them and your little town might become a haven for delinquents, but in truth, you know every one of the lads, seed, breed and generation.
One or two of them will drift away to London, a couple will get the grant and go to college if they’re lucky, and the rest will end up working in the bakery or on their father’s small farm.
Work in the day and pints at night until you knock your torch on the window, though not too early, and send them all off to their beds like good Catholic lads. You wonder what happened to that red-haired lad who did medicine for five years but ended up working as a scaffolder in Hammersmith. Maybe your brother’s girl will get medicine in UCG if she wouldn’t be out dancing every night of the week.
You are Sergeant Mullins.
It’s no small matter to be a widow in a rural town. Not a minor thing, if you’re twenty-eight years old and have five children to raise in a big house with no money. To the women, you’re a threat and to the men you’re a mystery, but mouths must be fed.
You’re not even sure if you knew your late husband, despite your gaggle of small ones, for you seem to have inhabited different intersecting orbits.
What was Daddy like?
Maybe you should ask one of his friends.
You’re a woman of some consequence in the town, and it wouldn’t do to let yourself down by undue levity, impropriety or an unguarded smile offered to a stranger.
And yet it isn’t easy. It’s no easy thing for a young woman raising five small offspring in a big house with no man to help, taking in guests and fixing the leaks yourself, the sticking doors and the sliding sash window that has inexplicably slammed down on the middle child’s hand. He’s stuck, the little fellow, and he’s screaming at the top of his lungs and you don’t, finally, know what to do, because you have had enough.
You are the Widow Gallagher.
Sergeant Mullins is outside the window, with a spade. He levers the sash open and releases the child’s fingers. He pushes the window up to its full reach, jams a stick under it and takes the little hand in his. You’ll be better before you’re married, he says, and slips sixpence into the child’s uninjured grasp. There’s a smudge of earth on his face and his eyes are kind.
Sergeant Mullins and his wife have not been blessed with children.
Thank you, Sergeant, you say.
I’ll bring some more tools, he says. I know you’re well able to use them, but take care the little ones don’t lose them on you.
I will, you tell him.
You stand looking at each other for a moment and then he nods.
Good, he says, and hefts the spade. Good.
You’re older now and retired, but they still call you Sergeant and you’d still face down any ruffian causing trouble outside a pub. You’re tall and strong in your late seventies. You still go to the bog with your sleán to cut the turf, but Mrs Mullins is worried.
What if you die out there?
Sure, at least they’ll know where to find me, you reassure her.
One day last week, you met Mrs Gallagher and you confided that you were thinking of buying your coffin. All her children did very well. The little fellow with the sore fingers is teaching in some university down the country, and even the fellow you thought would end up in trouble has a good job. One of the girls married a doctor who graduated from UCG the same year as your niece.
Why don’t you do that Sergeant? said Mrs Gallagher. You could bring the coffin home and maybe Mrs Mullins would line it the way you’d prefer.
That’s a very good idea, you thought.
You could even climb into it, said Mrs Gallagher, and see if you like it.
You aren’t sure if Mrs Gallagher is having a little laugh at your expense, but that’s all right. She raised five children and raised them well. You did what you could to help.
They’re gathered in your home but you’re not there.
Mrs Mullins is making tea.
He just said, “I think I’ll go to bed now.”
Previously: The pissing file of Schull.