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The Photograph

The little girl watched the family gather for a photograph, wishing she could be a part of the picture.  She loved having her photograph taken, and it had only happened a few times in her short life.  One of her uncles had taken her photograph along with her parents when she had made her First Communion at the age of seven.  She hadn’t really understood what was going on, but how she treasured that first photograph of herself, that grainy black and white image in a frame in the sitting room at home, inside a glass display  cabinet which her mother called ‘my glass case’ with great pride.  It was a sitting room landmark, along with the grandfather clock and the three ceramic birds flying across the mantelpiece.  The other time was when a photographer came to the school the year before.  She had washed and brushed her hair until it shone that day, and took extra special care with her school uniform.  She could always pick out her own face among the fifty or so children in the photograph.

The Duffy family had asked a photographer they knew to come and take a photograph of their daughter, Mrs. Maureen McKee with her baby and her parents along with the still alive great grandmother, Mrs. Duffy’s mother, Mrs. Ryan.  They considered that it would be a great family heirloom in time to come.  How often did someone get a chance to see four generations of one family in one photograph? Eleven year old Eileen Flynn stood nearby in her doorway, as the doorway in their terraced houses all faced out on to the street.  She would have never admitted it, but she was hoping, somehow, to be invited to join in the photograph.  However, how was she to know that it was strictly a family occasion this time, and that no invitation would be forthcoming?  All she could think of was,   how mean of Maureen Duffy not to ask her to join in!  Eileen hated Maureen Duffy!

Well, she hadn’t always hated her.  Once upon a time, it may sound amazing, but the great Maureen Duffy now Mrs. McKee with a baby and all, and young Eileen Flynn, now aged eleven and then aged nine, used to be best friends.  That was in the days when Maureen was engaged to a fellow from Northern Ireland, Gerry McKee.    He was in the Royal Navy and had travelled the whole world.  He was always away and Maureen used  to be ‘going mad’ as she said herself, and she always wanted Eileen to go with her to the Post Office to post him a letter.  ‘My Gerry’, she used to call him, or ‘my sailor boy’.  Oh, she was all excited about her upcoming wedding, and Veronica was often the first to know the news about it!  Maureen had met Gerry McKee when she went to visit her aunt ‘up north’  when she was sixteen.  They’d been secretly engaged for a long time.  Maureen had worked in a biscuit factory and was ‘saving up’  for her wedding.

Eileen was very proud of being the friend of such a grown up girl.  She played piggy beds (hopscotch) and skipping with other girls in the cul de sac and had done her share of swinging around lamp posts for entertainment!  But Maureen’s world was much more exciting than that and Veronica was always ready to leave her regular friends to their footpath games (well, piggy beds wasn’t a footpath game, it was chalked out on the road but the minute you saw a car coming down the cul de sac, you just ran away!) and run whenever Maureen called across the road

“Eileen!  You coming to the Post Office?”.  She used to love the little treats Maureen used to buy for her.  Once she got a bar of Dairy Milk!  Another day, she got a   packet of chocolate ├ęclairs. To a little girl accustomed only to lollipops, penny toffees and bullseyes, this was a great treat!

So, just eighteen months before, Maureen Duffy had  got married to her sailor boy and went off to live happily ever after in England after showing everyone how to get married!  Her wedding dress, followed the latest fashion trends and everyone was still talking about how great  the reception was.  Eileen had been a flower girl at the wedding, and yes, her photograph appeared in Maureen’s wedding album too.  But Eileen had missed her old friend and longed for her return.

Now Maureen was back home for a long stay with her parents.  Things were ‘not the best’ as Eileen’s  mother said when she was trying to be tactful.  Gerry was away a lot of the time and Maureen did not like living in England.  She'd missed Dublin more than she thought she would.  She had been down and depressed ever since her son Davy was born, about ten months earlier.  She was trying to find her feet again.  Maureen’s parents were finding it a bit difficult to manage.   They were old already.  Maureen had been the last born child in a large family, born when her mother was getting on in age.  But the remarkable thing was that Maureen’s grandmother was still alive.  The small two rooms up and two rooms down house in the terrace of a Dublin cul de sac was rather crowded at the moment.  Only five people, but when you consider that one was a baby of less than a year and another was an elderly person over the age of eighty, there was a lot of tension in that family.  The baby was prone to waking at night and Mrs. Ryan, Maureen’s maternal grandmother,  liked to have peace and quiet.

Eileen had found herself not exactly welcomed with open arms when she  had dropped in to say hello to Maureen and have a look at the baby.  Maureen was lounging around in an old jumper and skirt, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, having been ‘up all night’ with the baby.  Instead of her old, beautifully groomed self, who was never seen without her lipstick on or her  clothes ironed, she looked shabby and tired.  When Eileen had tentatively asked could she see the baby,  Maureen rolled her eyes heavenward.

 “Please don’t go near him now!  I’ve only just got him down to sleep!”   The child was so confused and disappointed that her mother remarked on it later on at teatime.

She told her mother about the change in Maureen, and how confusing it was.  Her mother gave a knowing look.

“The trouble with that Maureen one is, that she was always a bit of a consequence!” she said.  This was Mrs. Flynn’s way of saying that Maureen was stuck up, snobbish.  “She’s come down to earth with a bang now!” she added.

“What do you mean, Mammy?” asked Eileen, puzzled.

“Oh, she thought she was the bee’s knees and the spider’s ankles, getting married to a sailor and going off to live in England.  Well, just see the state of her now!  Marriage isn’t  all about romance and swanning around with your handsome prince, love!  It’s just hard work and that’s all there is to it!  Well, she’s made her bed.  She can lie in it now!”

Eileen was even more puzzled than ever.  Could life really be so disappointing?

“You see,” continued her mother,  “a man doesn’t really need a princess, sitting around with her lipstick on all day!  He wants his house clean and his dinner on the table! And when babies come along, they have to be looked after.  That’s the truth about marriage!  Not all that fancy stuff she used to be going on about.”  Eileen felt sad.  In a way, she felt sorry for Maureen.

“She was saying that her husband goes away a lot for work and leaves her alone with the baby!” said Eileen.

“And what is he going away for?  To earn money to look after her and that child!  She ought to be down on her knees thanking God she has a man with a good job, not sitting around smoking cigarettes and feeling sorry for herself!”  said Mrs. Flynn getting up from the table.  That was the end of the conversation.

The next time Eileen went in, things were even worse than the last time.  Eileen played with the baby for a short while, and found him lovely.  She had two younger sisters aged seven, the twins.  But they were grown up.  Not nearly as interesting as Davy.  He was so sweet.  Maureen watched Eileen playing with the child and smiled.

“Eileen!  Could you help me out?  I need a bit of a hand with some work.” she asked.

“Yes!”  said Eileen, eagerly!  “What do you want me to do, Maureen?”

“Well, would you just come in here every morning and wash his dirty nappies for me?” Maureen yelped with laughter.  Eileen could feel her face turning scarlet with embarrassment.

“I have to go to school in the morning!  I’ll see you, ‘bye….” she ran out.  Never again would she talk to that Maureen Duffy, never…..

After that, she never looked towards the Duffy’s house.  But that day, when the photograph was being taken, she just couldn’t help herself, standing in the doorway like that.  She was feeling so sad for the loss of her old friendship with Maureen.  If only there could have been some way Maureen could have been like her old self, but just with the wonderful addition of the baby.

“If Maureen Duffy was happy over there in England with that sailor, we wouldn’t have seen her around here for years!”  Those were Eileen's mother's words.

One Saturday shortly after, Eileen spotted Maureen’s old factory friend Angela Gibson going down the road, towards Maureen’s house.  It was her day off work, so she’d come round to visit her old friend.  Eileen was playing piggy beds with her two friends Kathleen and Sarah on the road near Maureen’s house.  They’d chalked up a hopscotch bed on the road and were using an old shoe polish tin to traverse the numbered squares.  Out of the corner of her eye, Eileen glanced towards Maureen’s house.  The door of Maureen’s house was open as usual and she let out a shriek of delight on catching sight of her old friend.  Eileen felt so left out.  Noticing Eileen, Maureen walked back into the house and came out again a minute later.

“Eileen!” she called.

“Yes?” replied the girl, trying to contain her eagerness.

“Can you go down to the shop and bring me ten cigarettes, like a good girl?” she asked.  “You know the ones I smoke?”  Eileen said yes, and was gone.  Kathleen and Sarah were left standing on the piggy bed on the road.  They were going home for their dinner soon anyway.

Coming back up the road with Maureen’s ten cigarettes, Eileen wondered was she being a fool running errands for someone who was so mean.  She couldn’t help it.  She liked Maureen too much, so full of life, singing the Elvis Presley songs off the wireless at the top of her voice.  Eileen had heard her through the wall in the morning and laughed.     As  she neared Maureen’s house, door ever open as usual, Eileen was amazed to see baby Davy crawling out of the door, onto the footpath and straight on to the piggy bed chalked on the road outside.

“Davy, get in off the road!” she cried, running towards him and waving.  Of course he didn’t understand, he was a baby.  In one horrific moment, Eileen was aware of a bread van coming towards the baby who had wandered right into it’s path.  She hurtled towards the baby, arms out!

Vincent Byrne, the van driver, was almost on top of the child when he noticed him and slammed on the breaks in a reflex action, praying that it wasn’t too late!  But that little girl, where had she come from?  He closed his eyes, heard the screech, the crunch, then nothing……Eileen woke up in a daze of pain in a hospital ward  with her mother beside her.

“Eileen!  Are you all right love?” she asked, tears in her eyes.  

“Mammy?  Is Davy…?”

“Davy’s fine, thank God!  It’s you I’m worried about!”  her mother  replied.

Eileen was home in a few days, with a broken leg and a slight concussion, nothing more.  She was going to be fine.  The Flynns were beside themselves with shock, as were the Duffys.  Thank God, they agreed, no harm was done, not in the long term anyway.  Eileen had picked up Davy in her arms and cushioned him against the onslaught of the van which had not been traveling at a great speed but noticed the child just a little late.  From being a little girl hardly anyone had ever noticed, Eileen had become the heroine of the hour.  She would never forget Maureen, her eyes swollen from shock.

“You saved my baby, I’ll never forget what you did!  I don’t know how it happened, I  had a visitor, I only turned my back for a minute…..”  And Sister Martina from the school had come around and told her that the school was proud of her and that all the girls were praying for her speedy recovery!  It was nice to be the centre of attention for a bit.  Her pains were gradually subsiding and it was lovely to know that she had saved that dear little child…

Maureen came in to see her again a few days later.
 
“I’m going back to England,” she told her.  “Davy’s dad is back and wants to see him again." Maureen’s mother hoped it was because the accident had given her a new perspective and helped her to be thankful for all she had.  Actually, she could not bear the sneers and cold looks of people blaming her for the accident and labeling her, rather unfairly, for being a bad and neglectful mother.  But no doubt, Maureen Duffy McKee was thankful for the chance to make a fresh start.

“I have a surprise for you Eileen.  I wanted to give it to you before I go!” she said.  “How do you like your photograph?”  And there it was!  The family photo of the Duffy’s, great grandmother and all!  And Eileen, sulking in the corner.

“You look lovely in that, you do.” said Maureen.

“I do not!” she replied laughing. " Well I have a copy of it too, and I’m going to keep it forever.  You are my best pal, do you know that?”   said Maureen.  “Well, thanks very much!” said Eileen, smiling.

This post originally appeared on Write Away on WordPress on 6/10/2009

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