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Trevor Ferguson: 10 Books I Digested Early
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Trevor Ferguson: 10 Books I Digested Early

By 49thShelf
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Trevor Ferguson has been highly praised for his stunning and dramatic writing, and his ability to explore the mysteries of the human heart. With The River Burns, he takes the reader on a passionate journey through the humanity, temptation, devastation, and, ultimately, the redemption of a small town.
Barometer Rising

Penny felt her heart beginning to labour. Of course, if Neil were alive and in disgrace he would be a deserter and would not dare wear a uniform…. Penny breathed deeply. Surely if Neil were in Halifax she would have heard from him. She could not endure the thought that he was alive anywhere and had not come to her.

Then the withering feeling returned as she remembered her father and the things people had whispered about Neil Macrae for the past two years. She remembered Murray’s unwillingness to talk and the sudden embarrassment of Billy Andrews only half an hour ago. But Angus, at least, would have told her if Neil was alive. He could never have brought himself to lie about a thing like that. She had been so sure of his sincerity that his answers had finally dispelled any lingering hope that Neil might still be living, in spite of everything.

The tram stopped at the foot of her street and she got off and began to climb the hill. It was silent and cold and empty on this street where she had lived all her life. The air cooled her brain and slowed her thoughts and her heart to a normal pace. As she began to calculate the situation she thanked God for this gift which never failed her, this merciful power within herself that enabled her to spill cold water over her brain and make it lucid in moments of crisis.

She moved slowly up the hill under the bare branches of the trees until she reached the red house at the crest….
She looked at the front door. That heavy rectangle of oak weighted with its brass knocker was a symbol. Her family had shut her in from the world when she was young; it had shut her out from itself when she had ceased being a child. Her body straightened, became erect and rigid, as though to counteract the trembling sensation in her spine which now was spreading to her hands, her knees, and her shoulders.

In that instant she knew unmistakably that Neil Macrae was alive and that she had seen him. She realized this beyond the power of any logic to confute it. Her eyes were trained to recognize what was placed before them; they had often tried to fool her, but after sober consideration, they had never cheated her in her whole life.

The quivering in her limbs subsided. She drew a deep breath of damp air, and slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat. And then she felt saturated with anger and cold determination. No one had ever had the kindness to give her an honest account of what had happened to Neil that day or night in Flanders when they hinted that his cowardice had ruined her father’s career in the army. The family had whispered their obscure remarks, and after Jean’s birth she had been too shaken and apprehensive to ask many questions. But Neil was alive now and she knew it. He was back in Halifax, and not all the coldness and pride of her father could keep her from compelling him to answer her questions tonight. She closed the door loudly behind her as she entered the house.

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Why it's on the list ...
The second novel I read not specifically geared to children was The Watch that Ends the Night. So began an early enjoyment of Canadian novels. The enjoyment of the sweep and scope of that book riveted me as I suppose later generations are held in sway by Harry Potter. Over the next year or so I went on to read every novel MacLennan had written, and I suppose I was developing a critical judgment by selecting Barometer Rising as my favourite. The Halifax explosion seared my imagination.
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Such Is My Beloved

Such Is My Beloved

also available: Paperback
tagged : classics
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Father Dowling took off his hat and looked around slowly as if it were most important that he find a proper place to put it. He saw the room with the faded blue flowers on the wall-paper, the thick blue curtains on the window, the wide iron bed, painted white but chipped badly at the posts, and the copper-colored carpet that had a spot worn thin near the side of the bed. There were two chairs in the room. A door led into the next room. While he was looking around, the tall fair girl, who was wearing a loose blue dress that concealed the angularity of her body, assumed a ready smile, came over beside him and began to help him off with his coat with a dreadful efficiency. And the little, dark one with the round brown eyes and the smooth soft skin and a big bunch of black hair at the nape of her neck, jumped up from her chair with the same impressive efficiency, and in the affected manner of a great lady, extended her left hand with the elbow crooked as if he would be permitted just to touch the tips of her fingers. "How do you do, Sweetie. We are so mighty pleased to see you. You can't go wrong in coming here to see me."

"Who said he was coming to you?"

"He'll want to come to me. Won't you want to come to me?"

"Take it easy, Midge. Don't be so pushing. He doesn't want you. Why, he first spoke to me. You heard him speak to me. Hell, though, if Rosy Cheeks wants you, it's all the same to me."

"I'm not trying to rush him. Let him suit himself."

As Father Dowling listened, all the words from the sermon of the old missionary priest that had been in his head were forgotten, and by this time Ronnie, the tall one, was pulling off his scarf. Holding the scarf in her hand, she stood still. She saw his Roman collar and knew he was a priest. They both looked scared for a moment, then Ronnie said, "For the love of God, Midge, look what the wind blew in."

"He can't stay here. What are you going to do with him?"

"I didn't bring him. Maybe the poor guy wants to stay."

But Father Dowling had gained confidence in the one moment while the girls were abashed, so he waited to see what they would do. Starting to laugh, Ronnie said, "Don't get nervous, Father. It's all the same to us, you know," and her brisk, efficient manner returned, the grin settled on her face and she reached out in a hurry and took hold of his arm. Midge, who was slower to speak, had stepped back, frowning and timid; then she, too, grew bolder and she began to shake her shoulders till her full breasts swayed, and coming closer to him, she said, "Are you going for Ronnie, or do you want to leave it to me?"

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Why it's on the list ...
Morley Callaghan was a hero of mine. Nobody understands why. Mentioning my affection for his work to an early editor and mentor, the man laughed with some surprise, as my prose at the time was so diametrically opposed to Callaghan’s that it might as well have been in another language. Opposites attract I suppose, but I was even more drawn to Callaghan’s sparse and almost one-note tone than to the musical beats of a Hemingway. The latter was more compelling to young writers and readers, for sure, but Callaghan’s language created familiar worlds. I happened to read his Toronto novels first and was surprised to fall upon one set in Montreal. He had an ease with certain archetypes, such as priests and prostitutes, which is unlikely to be duplicated again. We may know better of these matters now, we may be more sophisticated, yet early in life his world felt fascinating and even a bit wild.
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The Loved and the Lost

The Loved and the Lost

by Morley Callaghan
introduction by David Staines
afterword by Edmund Wilson
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

Set in the early 1950s in Montreal, this is the story of enigmatic Peggy Sanderson?a woman who has become a socially awkward presence due to her open and casual association with black musicians in Lower Town nightclubs. White and black men assume she must be involved sexually with the musicians, white women are perplexed by her, and black women both fear and loathe her. Yet Peggy’s almost guileless sense of ease is at complete variance with these assumptions and attitudes. When Jim McAlpine, a …

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They Shall Inherit the Earth

They Shall Inherit the Earth

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

First published in 1935, this novel is a penetrating study of a father and son caught in the moral and economic undertow of the Great Depression. The action hinges upon a sudden mischance in which accident and intention tragically coincide. Swept along by the inexorable logic of events, Callaghan’s protagonists are forced to re-examine the nature of individual conscience and responsibility. In their personal struggle is expressed the mood of the age, its cynicism and anger, its desperate ideal …

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In the early summer evening Andrew Aikenhead, of the firm of Hillquist and Aikenhead, had gone out seeking his son. He had crossed slowly through the traffic with an eager expression on his upturned florid face. He was there on the sidewalk in the crowd, in the way of the passing people, looking up at the rooming house where his son lived, and he was full of delight, as though he had at last taken a necessary step that would bring joy again into his life.

He went into the house, and when he stood in the hall and saw by the names on the wall that his son was on the third floor, he began to climb the red-carpeted stairs, puffing and sighing at every fifth step. On the second floor, where the light was brighter, he saw a small, neat man with such delicate features and such fair wavy hair parted in the middle that he looked like a pretty boy, except that his blue eyes were redrimmed and shrewd, and this man was tiptoeing along the hall carrying a basket of fruit in both hands. The light overhead shone on the blue grapes, the yellow pears and the glossy peaches as he stooped and placed the basket of fruit on the carpet by the door of a room.

“Could you tell me where Michael Aikenhead lives?” Andrew Aikenhead asked.

“Mike Aikenhead,” the man said, straightening up and looking embarrassed. “Sure, I can tell you. Go on upstairs. The last room on the right at the back. He’s in there.” Andrew Aikenhead went on climbing the stairs again, while the fairhaired young man looked doubtfully at the basket of fruit he had placed like an offering outside that door.

In the little hall at the top, where there were only two doors, Andrew Aikenhead coughed, and then he began to clear his throat like a man who is about to make an important speech and offers a few preliminary sounds as a friendly gesture. Then he stood still, looking at the brown-painted door while his heart fluttered strangely and there was a yearning in him that his son might remember and know his voice that had sounded so loud. And when he rapped and his son’s voice called carelessly, “Come in,” he was full of gladness; and as he opened the door he thought, “That’s a good omen. Things will go well.”

His son, Michael, was sitting at a desk with his feet curled around the legs of the chair, and because the light on the desk was one of those lamps that students use which throw the rays of light in a pyramid shape full upon the desk, the father could not quite see the face in the shadow. The long fingers of one of his son’s big hands crossed quickly through the light and spread through his hair, and then he got up awkwardly. He was a big dark fellow, and he came across the room slowly, his hand stretched out to his smiling father. “Hello, I hardly knew you. I mean I was surprised to see you,” he said.

“Didn’t you hear me cough in the hall, Michael?”

“No, I was reading.”

“I knew you’d be surprised. I guess you didn’t expect me at all,” the father said, and then he sat down on the bed, for he was out of breath from climbing the stairs, and he looked around the room while he rested. It was one of those attic rooms with sloping ceilings. There was only a bed, an old golden-oak dresser, a heavy desk with one end of it piled high with books, the long window, with a radiator under it, and a worn green carpet on the floor. At one end of the room was a little alcove that could be used as a kitchenette, for there was a gas stove there and a kettle and a coffee pot. And when Andrew Aikenhead saw how poor his son was and that he lived in this plain room, he sighed, and he was deeply embarrassed and he could not look up, even though he knew his son preferred this poverty to the comfort of his father’s house.

Michael was a graduate civil engineer who was waiting for some development in the industrial life of the city that would give him work. He had left his father’s house when he started at the university. He hadn’t been able to get along with his father the last ten years. The hostility between them had begun at the time of the father’s second marriage; it had begun on the day when he had brought his second wife to the house, and day after day it grew, with the father helpless and wondering, until it was time for Michael to go to the university, and then he had said he would live alone and be independent and support himself. At the university he had waited on tables, he had pressed trousers and taken out ashes, and he had sold magazines around the country in the summer.

Andrew Aikenhead remembered all this as he smiled humbly and looked at his son who was standing there holding his body tense, ready to retreat. He saw how calm his son’s face was and he felt the firmness in him, and then he began to fear timidly that Michael would not need him now at all. He wanted to say, “You don’t need me now, Michael, but don’t be hostile. I could hardly bear it when you left us. I never really knew why you disliked me. I never really knew till this day. Many men marry the second time. Their sons go on living with them.” But his head drooped and a hurt expression came into his eyes that made him look lost and helpless in that attic room, for the more he remembered the more he longed to make one sincere and friendly remark that would break the silence that was embarrassing both of them. “This place isn’t very comfortable to have a chat in, is it?” he said.

“I’ll go out and have a drink with you, if you want to,” Michael said.

“Have a drink with me?”

“Sure. There’s a place around the corner.”

“That’s splendid,” he said, and he picked up his hat quickly, for the simple words of the speech he had planned to use for this occasion would not come to him, and his face was reddening. They were just going out when they heard some one knocking, and when Michael opened the door his father saw a fair girl with big candid blue eyes and thick yellow hair in a long bob and a round high-cheek-boned face. She was wearing a light-blue knitted sweater that was tight at her waist. When she smiled at Michael, his father thought it was the warmest and friendliest smile he had ever seen. She was carrying the basket of fruit the little fair man had placed outside her door.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Son of a Smaller Hero
Why it's on the list ...
I read this one before Duddy Kravitz. We could leave it at that, but let’s face it, I’d hit puberty and Noah Adler was not only hitting on an older woman, he was having an affair with a teacher’s wife! Dismissed, perhaps, as an apprentice novel, and Richler served his apprenticeship earlier than most, the book nonetheless worked for my younger self. When asked why I didn’t start as a short story writer, then move to novels, I look no further than my Montreal predecessors, MacLennan, Richer, Moore, Roy. They were writing novels, so of course that’s what I would do.
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The Tin Flute

Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty. The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clacking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life here in St. Henri.

Over the shoulders of her half-dozen customers, her glance fled toward the counters of the store. The restaurant was at the back of the Five and Ten. In the glitter of the glassware, the chromed panels, the pots and pans, her empty, morose and expressionless ghost of a smile caught aimlessly on one glowing object after another.

Her task of waiting on the counter left her few moments in which she could return to the exciting, disturbing recollections of yesterday, except for tiny shards of time, just enough to glimpse the unknown young man’s face in her mind’s eye. The customers’ orders and the rattling of dishes didn’t always break into her reverie, which, for a second, would cause a brief tremor in her features.

Suddenly she was disconcerted, vaguely humiliated.

While she had been keeping an eye on the crowd entering the store through the glass swing-doors, the young stranger had taken a place at the imitation-marble counter and was calling her over with an impatient gesture. She went toward him, her lips slightly open, in a pout rather than a smile. How maddening that he should catch her just at the moment when she was trying to remember how he looked and sounded!

“What’s your name?” he asked abruptly.

She was irritated, less by the question than by his way of asking: familiar, bantering, almost insolent.

“What a question!” she said contemptuously, though not really as if she wanted to end the conversation. On the contrary, her voice was inviting.

“Come on,” said the young man, smiling. “Mine’s Jean. Jean Lévesque. And I know for a start yours is Florentine. Florentine this, Florentine that, Florentine’s in bad humour today, got a smile for me, Florentine? Oh, I know your first name all right. I even like it.”

He changed tone imperceptibly, his eyes hardened.

“But if I call you miss, miss who? Won’t you tell little old me?” he insisted with mock seriousness.

He leaned toward her and looked up with eyes whose impudence was apparent in a flash. It was his tough, strong-willed chin and the unbearable mockery of his dark eyes that she noticed most today, and, this made her furious. How could she have spent so much time in the last few days thinking about this boy? She straightened up with a jerk that made her little amber necklace rattle.

“And I guess after that you’ll want to know where I live and what I’m doing tonight,” she said. “I know you guys.”

“You guys? What do you mean, you guys?” he mocked, looking over his shoulder as if there were someone behind him.

“Just . . . you guys!” she said, half exasperated.

His familiar, slightly vulgar tone, which put him on her level, displeased her less than his usual behaviour and speech. Her smile returned, irritated but provocative.

“Okay, now!” she said. “What do you want today?”

Once again his look had that brutal familiarity.

“I hadn’t got around to asking what you’re doing tonight,” he said. “I wasn’t in that big a hurry. Normally I’d take another three days at least. But now you mention it. . . .”

He leaned back a little on the stool and weaved gently from side to side. As he stared at her, his eyes narrowed.

“Now then! Florentine, what’re you doing tonight?”

He saw that she was upset. Her lower lip was trembling, and she held it with her teeth. Then she busied herself pulling a paper napkin from a chrome box, unfolded it and spread it on the counter.

Her face was thin, delicate, almost childish. The effort she was making to control herself caused the small, blue veins on her temples to swell and knot, and her almost diaphanous nostrils, closing, pulled tight the skin of her cheeks, as smooth and delicate as silk. Her lips were still uncertain, still threatening to tremble, but Jean, looking in her eyes, was suddenly struck by their expression. Under the arched line of her plucked eyebrows, extended by a little streak of makeup, her lowered lids could not hide the thin bronze ray of a glance, cautious, attentive and extraordinarily eager. Then she blinked, and the whole pupil showed with a sudden gleam. Over her shoulders fell a mass of light-brown hair.

With no particular purpose the young man was watching her intently. She astonished more than she attracted him. And even this phrase he had just uttered, “What are you doing tonight?” . . . had been unexpected. It had taken shape in his mind without his knowing; he had tossed it out as one drops a pebble to test an unknown depth. But her reaction encouraged him to try again. Would I be ashamed to go out with her? he wondered. And then the idea that such a thought could intervene after he had gone this far pushed him on to greater daring. Elbows on the counter, eyes staring into Florentine’s, he was waiting, as if in a cruel game, for a move from her to which he could react.

She stiffened under his brutal scrutiny, and he was able to see her better. He saw her upper body reflected in the wall mirror, and he was struck by her thinness. She had pulled the belt of her green uniform as tight as it would go around her waist, but you could see that her clothing barely clung to her slender body. And the young man had a sudden glimpse of what her life must be like, in the rush and bustle of St. Henri, that life of spruce young girls with rouged cheeks reading fifteen-cent serial novels and burning their fingers at the wretched little fires of what they took for love.

His voice grew incisive, almost cutting.

“You’re from here? From St. Henri?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders, and her only reply was a vexed, ironical smile, again more like a pout.

“Me too,” he went on, with mocking condescension.

“So we can be friends, eh?”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
Evidence that Montreal produced writers was apparent, but no local book struck home more forcibly than The Tin Flute. I base this on my memories of how it affected my behaviour. Suddenly I was traipsing away, at 12 or 13, from my somewhat north end community to wander the streets of “the Pointe”, Pointe St. Charles, southwest of downtown. A risky escapade in a tough neighbourhood. Doors off their hinges, paint peeling on window frames, a warning bulge in the brickwork, sloped and rotted porches. And more: the sallow skin on the faces of young women, the eyes of young men sunk back in the sockets. And more: the quiet of a crowd or a sudden outbreak of disembodied, angry voices. Life’s hardships had eased for some, but not all, and the streets revealed themselves through the book, and the book revealed the streets. My imagination was fired to create what occurred in the mysterious homes that slumped through long, hot summers, and frigid winter.
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A Season in the Life of Emmanuel
Why it's on the list ...
A little older when I read this, the destitution of the lives of these children still affected me. The emotive power and intrigue of Blais’ language beguiled what was now a mind committed to writing. I don’t read books twice, and not this one either, but the moment I finished I did start reading at the first page again, trying to divine how she had divined this book.
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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantelpiece of whatever bedsitting room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bedsprings, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.
After she had arranged the photograph so that her dear aunt could look at her from the exact centre of the mantelpiece, Miss Hearne unwrapped the white tissue paper which covered the coloured oleograph of the Sacred Heart. His place was at the head of the bed, His fingers raised in benediction, His eyes kindly yet accusing. He was old and the painted halo around His head was beginning to show little cracks. He had looked down on Miss Hearne for a long time, almost half her lifetime.
The trouble about hanging the Sacred Heart, Miss Hearne discovered, was that there was no picture hook in the right place. She had bought some picture hooks but she had no hammer. So she laid the Sacred Heart down on the bed and went to the bay window to see how the room looked from there.
The street outside was a university bywater, once a good residential area, which had lately been reduced to the level of taking in paying guests. Miss Hearne stared at the houses opposite and thought of her aunt’s day when there were only private families in this street, at least one maid to every house, and dinner was at night, not at noon. All gone now, all those people dead and all the houses partitioned off into flats, the bedrooms cut in two, kitchenettes jammed into linen closets, linoleum on the floors and “To Let” cards in the bay windows. Like this house, she thought. This bed-sitting room must have been the master bedroom. Or even a drawing room. And look at it now. She turned from the window to the photograph on the mantelpiece. All changed, she told it, all changed since your day. And I’m the one who has to put up with it.
But then she shook her head to chase the silly cobwebs from her mind. She walked across the room, inspecting the surface. The carpet wasn’t bad at all, just a bit worn in the middle part, and a chair could be put there. The bed could be moved out an inch from the wall to hide that stain. And there on the bed was the Sacred Heart, lying face down, waiting to be put up in His proper place. Nothing for it, Miss Hearne said to herself, but to go down and ask the new landlady for the loan of a hammer.
Down she went, down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen which was used as a sitting room by Mrs Henry Rice. She knocked on the curtained door and Mrs Henry Rice drew the edge of the curtain aside to peek through the glass before she opened the door. Miss Hearne thought that a little rude, to say the least.
“Yes, Miss Hearne?”
Beyond the open door Miss Hearne saw a good fire in the grate and a set of china tea things on a table.
“I wondered if you had a hammer you might lend me. It’s to put up a picture, you know. I’m terribly sorry to be troubling you like this.”
“No trouble at all,” Mrs Henry Rice said. “But I have a head like a sieve. I never can remember where I put things. I’ll just have to think now. Listen, why don’t you come in and sit down? Maybe you’d like a cup of tea. I just wet some tea this minute.”
Well, that really was a nice gesture to start things off. Very nice indeed. “That’s very kind of you,” Miss Hearne said. “But I hate to put you out like this, really I do. I only wanted to put my picture up, you see.”
But as she said this she advanced across the threshold. It was always interesting to see how other people lived and, goodness knows, a person had to have someone to talk to. Of course, some landladies could be friendly for their own ends. Like Mrs Harper when I was on Cromwell Road and shethought I was going to help her in that tobacconist business.  Still Mrs Henry Rice doesn’t look that type. Such a big jolly person, and very nicely spoken.
The room was not in the best of taste, Miss Hearne saw at once. But cosy. Lots of little lace doilies on the tables and lamps with pretty pastel shades. There was a big enamel china dog on the mantelpiece and a set of crossed flags on the wall. Papal flags with silver paper letters underneath that said: eucharistic congress dublin. That was in 1932, in the Phoenix Park, Miss Hearne remembered, and my second cousin, once removed, sang in the choir at High Mass. Nan D’Arcy, God rest her soul, a sudden end, pleurisy, the poor thing. John McCormack was the tenor. A thrilling voice. A Papal count.
“Sit up close to the fire now. It’s perishing cold out,” Mrs Henry Rice said. A Dublin voice, Miss Hearne thought. But not quite. She has a touch of the North in her accent.
Miss Hearne saw that there were two wing chairs pushed close to the fire. She went toward one of them and it turned around and a man was in it.
He was a horrid-looking fellow. Fat as a pig he was, and his face was the colour of cottage cheese. His collar was unbuttoned and his silk tie was spotted with egg stain. His stomach stuck out like a sagging pillow and his little thin legs fell away under it to end in torn felt slippers. He was all bristly blond jowls, tiny puffy hands and long blond curly hair, like some monstrous baby swelled to man size.
“This is Bernard, my only boy,” said Mrs Henry Rice. “This is Miss Hearne, Bernie. Remember, I told you about her coming to stay with us?”
He stared at Miss Hearne with bloodshot eyes, rejecting her as all males had before him. Then he smiled, showing dirty yellow teeth.
“Come and sit by the fire, Miss Hearne,” he said. “Take the other chair. Mama won’t mind.”
Rejected, Miss Hearne sat down, fiddled with her garnet rings, moved her thin legs together and peered for comfort at her long, pointed shoes with the little buttons on them, winking up at her like wise little friendly eyes. Little shoe eyes, always there.
“Sugar and cream?” Mrs Henry Rice asked, bending over the tea things.
“Two lumps, please. And just a soupçon of cream,” Miss Hearne said, smiling her thanks.
“Cup of tea, Bernie?”
“No, thanks, Mama,” the fat man said. His voice was soft and compelling and it shocked Miss Hearne that this ugly pudding should possess it. It reminded her of the time she had seen Beniamino Gigli, the Italian tenor. A fat, perspiring man with a horrid face, wiping the perspiration away with a white handkerchief. And then, when he opened his mouth, you forgot everything and he became a wonderful angel, thrilling everyone in the theatre, from the front stalls to the gods. When Bernard spoke, you wanted to listen.
“Just a little cup, dear?”
“No, Mama.”
“Miss Hearne.” Mrs Henry Rice handed a teacup with the little silver teaspoon clattering in the saucer. Miss Hearne steadied the spoon and smiled her thanks.
“And have you lived long in Belfast, did you say?” Mrs Henry Rice said, poking the fire into a good blaze.
“Oh, since I was a child, yes,” Miss Hearne said. “You see, my aunt lived here, although my parents lived in Ballymena.”
“I see,” said Mrs Henry Rice, who did not see. “And whereabouts did your aunt live? Was it on this side of the city?”
“Oh, yes,” Miss Hearne said. “It was on the Lisburn Road. You see, my parents died when I was very young and my dear aunt, rest her soul, took me to live with her in Belfast.”
“Well, we all have to move around,” Mrs Henry Rice said. “I was born and raised myself in Donegal, in a little place called Creeslough. And then, when I was only a bit of a girl, I was packed off to Dublin to attend a secretarial college. And lived there with an uncle of mine. And met my late husband there. And then, Mr Rice, that’s my late husband, he was posted from Dublin to Belfast. And here I am. It just goes to show you, we all have to run from pillar to post, and you never know where you’ll end up.”
“Indeed,” Miss Hearne said. “But it must have been interesting for you, living in Dublin for so many years.”
“Oh, Dublin’s a grand city, no doubt about it. I’ve never been what you might call fond of Belfast. Of course, it’s not the same for you. You’d have lots of friends here. Is your poor aunt dead long?”
“A few years ago,” Miss Hearne said guardedly.
“And do you have relatives here?” Mrs Henry Rice asked, offering a plate of Jacob’s cream puff biscuits.
“Not close relatives,” Miss Hearne said, fencing her way over familiar ground. They were all a bit nosey, landladies, it was to be expected, of course. They had to know what class of people they were getting, and a good thing too. You couldn’t blame them.
“My aunt came from a very old Belfast family,” she said. “They’ve nearly all died out now, but they have a very interesting history, my aunt’s people. For instance, they’re all buried out in Nun’s Bush. That’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the country. Full up now. It’s closed, you know.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” Mrs Henry Rice said, uninterested. “Have a bikky, Bernie?”
“No thanks, Mama.”
He yawned, patting the opened circle of his mouth with a puffy hand. Above the yawn his eyes, unblinking, watched Miss Hearne, bringing the hot blood to her face.
“I do believe I’ll just throw off this cardigan, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll hold your cup,” Mrs Henry Rice offered amiably. “This room does get a little hot with a good fire going. But Bernie feels the cold a lot, always has.”
Who does he think he is, no manners, staring like that. Give him a stiff look myself. But no, no, he’s still looking. Upsetting. Turn to something else. That book, beside him, upside down, it’s esrev, verse, yes, English Century Seventeenth. Reading it, yes, he has a bookmark in it.
“I see you’re interested in poetry, Mr Rice.”
“Oh, Bernie’s a poet. And always studying. He’s at the university.”
“I am not at the university, Mama,” the fat man said. “I haven’t been at Queen’s for five years.”
“Bernie’s a little delicate, Miss Hearne. He had to stop his studies a while back. Anyway, I think the boys work too hard up there at Queen’s. I always say it’s better to take your time. A young fellow like Bernie has lots of time, no need to rush through life. Take your time and you’ll live longer.”
That fatty must be thirty, if he’s a day, Miss Hearne told herself. Something about him. Not a toper, but something. Oh, the cross some mothers have to bear.
And the cross brought back the Sacred Heart, lying on the bed in the room upstairs, waiting for a hammer to nail Him up. Still, it was nice to sit here in front of a good warm fire with a cup of tea in your hand. And besides, Mrs Henry Rice and this horrid fatty would make an interesting tale to tell when she saw the O’Neills.
For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodation and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected and gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation. And that was why even a queer fellow like this Bernard Rice was a blessing in his own way. He was so funny and horrible with his “Yes, Mama,” and “No, Mama,” and his long blond baby hair. He’d make a tale for the O’Neills at Sunday tea.
So Miss Hearne decided to let the Sacred Heart wait. She smiled, instead, at Bernard and asked him what he had been studying at the university.
“Arts,” he said.
“And were you planning to teach? I mean, when your health . . .”
“I’m not planning anything,” Bernard said quietly. “I’m writing poetry. And I’m living with my mother.” He smiled at Mrs Henry Rice as he said it. Mrs Henry Rice nodded her head fondly.
“Bernard’s not like some boys,” she said. “Always wanting to leave their poor mothers and take up with some woman and get married far too young. No, Bernard likes his home, don’t you, Bernie?”
“Nobody else knows my ways as well as you, Mama,” Bernie said softly. He turned to Miss Hearne. “She’s really an angel, Mama is, especially when I don’t feel well.”
Miss Hearne couldn’t think of anything to say. Something about him, so insincere. And staring at me like that, what’s the matter with me, is my skirt up? No, of course not. She tugged her skirt snug about her calves and resolutely turned the conversation toward a common denominator.
“We’re in Saint Finbar’s here, I believe. That’s Father Quigley’s parish, isn’t it?”
“Yes, he’s the P.P. Isn’t he a caution?”
“Oh, is that so? I heard he was a wonderful man,” Miss Hearne said. Goodness knows, religion is a comfort, even in conversation. If we hadn’t the priests to talk about, where would we be half the time?
“He’s very outspoken, I mean,” Mrs Henry Rice corrected herself. “I’ll tell you a story I heard only last week. And it’s the gospel truth.”
Mrs Henry Rice paused and looked sideways at Bernard. “Last week,” she said, “Father Quigley was offered a new Communion rail for the church from a Mrs Brady that used to keep a bad house. And do you know what he told her?”
“What Mrs Brady would that be?” Miss Hearne said faintly, unsure that she had heard it right. A “bad house” did she say? It certainly sounded like it. Well, that sort of place shouldn’t be mentioned, let alone mentioned in connection with the Church. You read about them in books, wicked houses, and who would think there were such places, right here in Belfast. She leaned forward, her black eyes nervous, her face open and eager.
“Well, as I said, she’s the one that ran a bad house for men over on the Old Lodge Road,” Mrs Rice said. “A terrible sort of woman. So, like all those bad women, she began to get afraid when she knew her time was coming near, and she decided to go to confession and mend her ways. The house was closed up last year and she’s been a daily communicant ever since. So, a couple of weeks ago – I heard it from one of the ladies in the altar society – she went to see Father Quigley and said she wanted to present a new Communion rail to Saint Finbar’s. Wrought iron from Spain, all the finest work.”
Mrs Henry Rice paused to watch Miss Hearne’s reaction.
“Well, I never!” Miss Hearne said.
“And do you know what Father Quigley said to her? He just drew himself up, such a big powerful stern man, you know what he looks like, and he said, ‘Look here, my good woman, let me ask you straight out, where did you get the money?’”
“Good heavens,” Miss Hearne said, thrilling to every word. “And what did she say to that, the creature?”
“Well, that took her back, no denying. She just fretted and fussed and finally she said she made the money in her former business. Her business, if you please. So Father Quigley just looked down at her, with that stiff look of his, and said to her, he said: ‘Woman,’ he said, ‘do you think I’ll have the good people of this parish kneeling down on their bended knees to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ with their elbows on the wages of sin and corruption?’ That’s the very thing he said.”
“And right too,” Miss Hearne commented. “That was putting her in her place. I should think so, indeed.”
Bernard pulled the poker out of the coals and lit a cigarette against its reddened end. “Poor Mama,” he said. “You always mix a story up. No, no, that wasn’t the way of it at all. You’ve forgotten what Mrs Brady said, right back to him.”
Mrs Henry Rice gave him a reproachful glance. “Never mind, Bernie. I did not forget. But I wouldn’t lower myself to repeat the insolence of a one like that Mrs Brady.”
“But that’s the whole point,” Bernard said, pushing the poker back among the coals. “Wait till I tell you her answer.” And he leaned forward toward Miss Hearne, his white, fat face split in a smile of anti-clerical malice. His voice changed, mimicking the tones of the bad Mrs Brady.
“She said to him: ‘Father, where do you think the money came from that Mary Magdalene used to anoint the feet of Our Blessed Lord? It didn’t come from selling apples,’ she said. And that’s the real story about Father F. X. Quigley, if you want to know.”
When he said this, Bernard laughed. His cheeks wobbled like white pudding.
“What a shocking disrespect for the priest,” Miss Hearne said. Where did the ointment come from anyway? Sometimes it made you see that you should read your Douay and know it better in order to be able to give the lie to rascals like this fat lump. But for the life of her she couldn’t remember where Mary Magdalene had got the money. What matter, it was an out-and-out sin to quote Scripture to affront the priest. She put her teacup down.
“The devil can quote Scripture to suit his purpose,” she said.
“Just so,” Mrs Henry Rice agreed. “But what else could you expect from the likes of Mrs Brady? No decent woman would talk to her.”
“Well – when I think of it – that hussy!” Miss Hearne said. “It’s downright blasphemy, that’s what it is, saying a thing like that in connection with Our Blessed Lord. Oh, my goodness, that reminds me. My picture. It’s of the Sacred Heart and I always hang it up as soon as I get in a new place. I mustn’t be keeping you. The hammer.”
“The hammer. I forgot all about it,” Mrs Henry Rice said. “Now, let me think. Oh, I know.”
She stood up, opened the door and yelled into the hall.
“Mary! May-ree!”
A voice called back. “Ye-ess!”
“Get the hammer out of the top drawer in the dresser in the attic,” Mrs Henry Rice bawled. She closed the door and turned back to Miss Hearne.
“Another cup of tea before you go?”
“Oh, no, really, it’s been lovely. Just perfect, thank you very much.”
“She’s a new girl, you know,” Mrs Henry Rice said, nodding toward the door. “I got her from the nuns at the convent. A good strong country girl. But they need a lot of breaking in, if you know what I mean.”
Miss Hearne, completely at home with this particular conversation, having heard it in all its combinations from her dear aunt and from her friends, said that if you got a good one it was all right, but sometimes you had a lot of trouble with them.
“You have to be after them all the time,” Mrs Henry Rice said, moving into the familiar groove of such talk. “You know, it’s a wonder the nuns don’t do more with them before they send them out to take a place. Badly trained, or not trained at all, is about the height of it.”
“Even when these girls are trained, they’re not used to the city,” Miss Hearne said. “I know the trouble friends of mine have had with convent-trained girls, taking up with soldiers and other riff-raff. Indeed, I often think the nuns are too strict. The girls behave like children as soon as . . .”
But she did not finish because at that moment there was a knock on the door and Mary came in. She was a tall, healthy girl with black Irish hair, blue eyes, and firm breasts pushing against the white apron of her maid’s uniform. Miss Hearne looked at her and thought she would do very nicely indeed. If you were civil to these girls, they often did little odd jobs that needed doing.
So she smiled at Mary and was introduced by Mrs Henry Rice. The hammer was given into her hands and she fumbled with it, saying thank you, and that she would return it as soon as she had finished hanging her picture. Mrs Henry Rice said there was no hurry and to let them know if she needed anything else, and then Miss Hearne went back up the two flights of stairs to her room.
She found a picture hook and began to nail the Sacred Heart over the head of the bed. And then, thinking back on the people downstairs, it occurred to her that while Bernard Rice was interesting in a horrible sort of way, he was also creepy-crawly and the sort of person a woman would have to look out for. He looked nosey and she felt sure he was the sort of slyboots who would love prying into other people’s affairs. And saying the worst thing he could about what he found. Instinctively, she looked at her trunks and saw that they were locked. Just keep them that way, she told herself. I wouldn’t put it past him to creep in here some day when I’m out. Still, his mother is certainly friendly, if a little soft where her darling boy is concerned. And the fire and the tea were nice and warming.
She stood back and surveyed the Sacred Heart. Prayers, she must say later. Meanwhile, she drew the curtains and lit the gas stove. With the electric light on and the gas stove spluttering, warming the white bones of its mantles into rosy red, the new bed-sitting room became much more cheerful. Miss Hearne felt quite satisfied after her cup of tea and biscuit, so, after unpacking some more of her things, she laid her flannel nightgown on the bed and turned the covers down. It had all gone very well really, and the cab driver had looked quite happy with the shilling she gave him for carrying the trunks upstairs. It should have been more, but he hadn’t said anything nasty. And that was the main thing. She was moved in, she had chatted with the landlady and, as a bonus, she had a couple of interesting stories to tell. The one about Father Quigley was not for mixed company, but it was certainly interesting. She decided to discard Bernard’s ending. It just wasn’t suitable and spoiled the whole point. And then there was Mrs Henry Rice and Bernard himself. They’d be something to talk about. Maybe some of the young O’Neills knew Bernard if he had been at Queen’s.
Miss Hearne unpacked the little travelling clock which had come all the way from Paris as a gift to her dear aunt. It was only seven, too early to go to bed. But she was tired and tomorrow was Friday, with nothing to do but unpack. Besides, if she went to sleep soon, she wouldn’t need any supper.
She put the clock on the bed table and switched on the little bed lamp. Then she undressed, and knelt to say her prayers. Afterward, she lay between the covers in the strange bed, watching the shadows of the new room. When the reddened mantles of the stove had cooled to whiteness and the chill of the night made goose-pimples on her forearms outside the covers, she looked over at her dear aunt and then turned her head to look up at the Sacred Heart. She said good night to them both, then switched off the bed light and lay, snuggled in, with only her nose and eyes out of the covers, remembering that both of them were there in the darkness. They make all the difference, Miss Hearne thought, no matter what aunt was like at the end. When they’re with me, watching over me, a new place becomes home.

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Why it's on the list ...
The older me is considerably less interested in novels of sadness and failure and sorrow. I’ll grant the best of these their due and bid adieu to the rest. But as a young man trying to discover literature but really using it as a key to unlock the world, novels of desperation, quiet or otherwise, appealed. None more so than The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. I remember being bored with the book—now that doesn’t sound so wonderful—yet I also recall discovering a stillness to the prose at times that rode through my qualms. I felt that here was a writer of some grace, an odd thought, perhaps, for a thirteen year old.
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