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by Pat McDermott

Christmas brings Irish army veteran Ronan Swanton home
to visit his family in Westport, County Mayo.

Chapter One - The Stars are Brightly Shining

A blast of wind swept over the hill and flattened the smoke curling out of the chimneys. The clear December sky stretched over Westport, providing a backdrop for Irish stars that sparkled their best, though they’d never brighten the heavens like the stars that shone over Lebanon.

Ronan ambled down the hill admiring the Christmas lights in windows and bare tree branches. He suspected his aunt had the holiday scenery in mind when she suggested they meet at the corner of her street.

“I’ll be there at eight on the dot,” she’d said, and Nora was never late.

Since he’d wanted to enjoy his stroll on streets he hadn’t seen in months, he’d left the house early. He reached the corner a little before eight. Nora hadn’t arrived yet. Standing with his back to the breeze, he scanned the town below and thought of the night lights of Tibnin. He’d often viewed them from Camp Shamrock’s observation posts. A new battalion could view them now, and good luck to them. Ronan was home in Ireland, inhaling the balm of burning turf.

“There you are, Ronan. Taking in the Christmas lights?” Nora sauntered toward him, lugging her old brown banjo case, her musician’s fingers snug in woolen gloves. The red scarf encircling her neck hung over the front of her coat. A matching hat covered most of her short black hair, flecked with silvery strands that had only cropped up in the last year or so. She’d done well, Ronan thought as he kissed her cheek. He was barely twenty-nine, and gray had already invaded the sides of his own dark hair.

“It’s a grand show. I’m glad you suggested coming this way.” He hadn’t seen her since he’d unlocked the house the day before, though they’d spoken often by phone since he’d moved to Dublin. He reached for the banjo. “I’ll carry that for you.”

“I expected you to have your own with you.”

“I left it in Dublin.”

Her playful squint reminded him of his mother, forever young in his mind. “Did you so? I’ve a few more back at the house. Wouldn’t take two secs to grab one, if you’ve a mind to play tonight.”

“I’m tempted. Still and all, I’ll let the hometown musicians provide the entertainment.”

“You’re a hometown musician, Ronie. You might’ve left Westport, but Westport will never leave you. You have been playing, haven’t you?”

She sounded concerned. As if he’d be letting her down if he never played his banjo again.

If you only knew how the banjo keeps me sane…

“I’ve been sitting in on gigs all over Dublin, nearly every night. I didn’t bring the banjo because I wanted to travel light. The plan was to stay a day or two, to see what needs doing in the house.” He sighed. “From the looks of it, I’ll be visiting Westport more often than I’d planned.”

“That’s not the worst news I’ve heard today.”

They walked together down the hill. Decorations adorned the rows of townhouses they passed. Westport’s Christmas lights hardly compared to the spectacle in Dublin, though Ronan preferred the less flamboyant hometown scenes.

Nora walked two steps to his one, her shorter legs easily matching his stride. “You’re looking well, Rone. You’ve finally lost your Lebanon tan.”

“A year of Irish weather finished it off.”

“Irish weather finishes off lots of things. Y’know, you could drive a taxi here as well as in Dublin. At least till you’ve sorted the house.”

“Westport has enough taxi drivers. It’s not a big town like Dublin. Anyway, I’m only driving the taxi till I figure out what I want to do.”

If his father hadn’t passed on, Ronan would still be in Lebanon, or at least in the army. In a way, he was glad he’d left the service. Once he’d sold the house, he’d be free to go wherever he pleased, wherever that might be. So many others had gone.

But Nora and John and their Connigan cousins were here in Westport. Ronan would hate to be too far away from them. He’d missed them enough in Lebanon.

A passing car slowed. The driver tooted the horn. Nora waved, and the car sped on.

Ronan glared at the shrinking tail lights. “He shouldn’t be driving so fast.”

“They all drive like that. We look twelve ways when we cross the street. You’ll stay for Christmas, won’t you?”

“I don’t know. Christmas is what, another week?”

“Next Friday. A week from today.”

“Maybe I’ll come for Christmas Day. Are you and John having dinner?”

“Not this year. Ben and his wife have invited us.”

“Ben’s wife? Oh, right. I forgot he remarried. What’s her name?”

“Gemma. A Yank, but a nice one. You met her at the wake.”

His father’s ill health had brought him home on compassionate leave the first week in January. Two weeks later, the old fella passed on. “I’ve no recollection of it. Most of it’s a blur.”

Nora shot him a pitying look. “I’m sure, poor lad. Once Ben and Gemma know you’re in town, they’ll insist that you to come to dinner too. Won’t it be grand to see your cousins? You’ll likely run into a few of them tonight. Do you recall seeing Auntie Joan at the wake?”

Images of the feisty old family matriarch warmed Ronan’s heart. “Who could forget Auntie Joan?”

“No one who meets her, that’s for sure. You know she remarried too.”

“Yes. I don’t think I met the new husband.”

“He came to the wake with her. Brendan O’Rooney, from Dublin. A fine singer.”

Though Ronan tried to place him, the man escaped him. Most of what he recalled of the wake was the steady stream of patter from people who shook his hand as he stood near his father’s casket, inhaling the sickening death-scent of lilies and roses.

He’s with your mother now.

He waited to go until you came home. He wanted to see you again.
It’s ease to his feet, lad. Poor man was suffering so.
You’re nobody’s son now, Ronan.

Refusing to dwell on grim memories, he recalled his last Christmas in Westport, two years ago. His longstanding awkwardness with his father had melted a little at Christmas dinner with Nora and John. Later that evening, Ronan pulled out his banjo and joined his aunt and uncle in an impromptu seisiún, heartening holiday music augmented by his father’s recitation of the old Irish poems he loved. A neighbor or two stopped by, and the singing began.

Those memories had left Ronan homesick when last year’s Christmas rolled around. Most of the Irish soldiers in Lebanon longed to be home for the holidays. Nevertheless, they’d sung themselves silly and blown off steam, even if Ronan’s brief fling with a payroll clerk named Kate Mulkerrin did crash and burn on Christmas Eve. Fueled by too much alcohol, Kate tore into him and called him a useless bounder. When she sobered up, she couldn’t recall the incident. Ronan had made a diplomatic peace with her. He'd also made it clear that they were through.

He shook the unsavory memory from his head. “This Brendan fella must be quite the man to harmonize with Auntie Joan. I’d like to hear him sing sometime. Is Andy still singing?”

“He is indeed, and working too. He and his bride bought a house near the harbor.”

Nora didn’t say it, yet Ronan heard the words: Young people do stay. You could stay too.

Not me, thanks.
“Seems there’s an epidemic of marriage in the Connigan family. Good music genes too, yeah? I do recall you saying that Ben is playing his flutes and whistles again. I’m starting to wish I’d brought Sophie.”

Nora paused beside a bush whose colorful lights dappled her face. “You have a girlfriend?”

Ronan shifted the banjo case. “Sophie is my banjo. She’s a good old girl, and a good friend.”

“Ah. I know exactly what you mean.”

They strolled on. The townhouses changed to shops and restaurants. Strains of music oozed from more than one pub. People roamed the sidewalks. Traffic had picked up.

The old clock tower came into view, a sentinel guarding the junction of several streets. On the other side of the tower, a Christmas tree done up in frosty white lights cast its festive glow on the intersection. Beyond it, more white lights adorned the leafless trees of Shop Street.

Ronan and Nora stopped outside The Black Oak Tavern. Ronan instinctively split the scene into quadrants, scanning each section, studying shadows, inspecting faces, watching for sudden movement. If needed, the banjo could serve as a weapon. His grip on the handle tightened.

The pub door opened, releasing a flood of Irish tunes. He silently chided himself. The only danger here was the traffic. The cars were driving far too fast down the hill into town.

If Nora had noticed his ingrained surveillance, she chose to ignore it. “Sounds like the seisiún has already started, but let’s not go in yet. I want to see the tree.”

They passed the pub to admire it. Others seemed to have the same idea. A woman with long brown hair stood with a white-haired couple near the door of a tea shop.

Camera in hand, a third woman paced between the tree and the clock tower. Though a black woolen hat concealed her hair, her agility led Ronan to think her far from elderly.

“I need another minute.” She spoke to the other viewers, or perhaps to Ronan and Nora. “Isn’t this beautiful?” A Yank. Aiming the camera, she took her shots. The flash went off like a strobe light. “One more.”

She backed up. Too far. Her heel hit the edge of the curbstone. She lost her balance and fought to regain it, but she was going down. Backwards. Into the street.

And a car was barreling down the hill.

Ronan dropped the banjo case and lunged.



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