A House Guest

A stiff wind sang through the streets of Ontario, settling into the weekday morning. The leaves of the avenue’s trees were dappled with a little red, orange and yellow. The season is drifting to autumn too soon, thought Maeve. Sunlight streamed through the windows and into her bedroom, the shards bathing the room in a sepia umbra that illuminated the wisps of dust in the air. The whistle of the kettle on the stove cut through the haze, Maeve dropped her soap into the bowl. The clink of cups convinced her she would need to investigate; then she would return to her morning ritual.

            She winced as one of the floorboards creaked, but she continued descending the stairs, wondering if the poker in her hand would be enough to remedy the situation. She crossed the doorway from the hall. She looked into the kitchen, and then looked again. The face before her was familiar, Maeve wasn’t afraid. There he was, taking tea at her kitchen table, reading a tattered copy of The Chicago Tribune. He looked up and smiled as he noticed her enter the room.

            ‘Benny!’ Said Maeve, ‘what are you doing here?’

            ‘Nice to see you too!’ Smiled Benny, rising to greet the friend who had departed him years before, ‘I was working in Chicago, so I thought I would call over.’

            ‘Chicago to Ontario?’ replied Maeve. ‘That’s over a thousand miles. We’re not down the road anymore.’ There was a certain coldness in her voice that Benny pretended not to notice.

            ‘It took a while, true, but it’s still closer than Ireland! What time does Brian finish work?’

            ‘Around six, but on the sunny days it could be longer. What were you doing in Chicago?’

            ‘I made a bit of money while I was working,’ said Benny, ‘so I thought I’d call over before I head back.’

‘There’s something we need to get straight before we go any further,’ said Mave, ‘Benny and I are married now. Happily married. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

‘Sure of course I do. And I’d like to congratulate the two of you!’

            ‘Well, so long as you understand that you’re welcome to stay,’ said Maeve in a voice that still betrayed a few misgivings. ‘How did you find us anyway?’

            ‘It was easy enough,’ claimed Benny, ‘I just asked around. The name Kearney isn’t that common around here. Your next-door neighbours seemed nice enough, are they German?’

            Maeve moved around the table to pull open the curtains opposite Benny. ‘That’s better.’

            ‘Christ!’ yelped Benny, raising his hand to shield his eyes, ‘you’re gonna bloody blind me!’

            ‘Yes,’ continued Maeve, ‘I think they’re German. Most people around here are from somewhere else, I don’t much care from where. We’re all in the same boat.’

            ‘True enough.’ said Benny after a moment’s contemplation. Maeve was sitting the other side of the table as she poured herself a cup, shielding Benny’s eyes from the sun before he continued. ‘A lot of immigrants in Chicago too, especially where I was. How have you and Brian found Canada? Where is he working now?’

            Benny and Maeve talked further as they drank from their cups of tea, refilling them now and then, talking over old memories, relaxing more with one another as time went by. Benny filled Maeve in on any news she might have missed. Some things she knew from her mother’s letters, but she liked gossiping with him just the same. Maeve told Benny that Brian had found work plentiful in Canada. Benny seemed particularly pleased to hear that, and to see that Maeve and Brian had a good life in Canada – better than they would’ve had if they had stayed in Ireland, he thought. Brian’s two jobs both paid well: he was working today at a local sawmill, where he was also night watchman at the weekends. Late in the morning Maeve excused herself, remembering she had to finish getting ready, and Benny asked if they had a sofa he could sleep on.

            ‘Would you not prefer a bed?’ asked Maeve.

            ‘Aye, if you have one.’ Benny slept into the afternoon, but he was awake and sitting at the table in time to greet Brian coming home from work.

            Brian came through a small yard at the back, where crumbling red brick breaks supported a preponderance of ivy. Using a gap between the grey flagstones he pulled off his work boots. He entered the kitchen and stared into the room for a moment, not quite believing who was sitting at his table.

            ‘Benny’ he said at last, a little stiffly, ‘where did you come from?’

            ‘Funny,’ said Benny, rising to meet the friend who had departed him years ago, ‘that’s exactly what Maeve said! I was working in Chicago and thought I would call by for a visit.’

            ‘Chicago to Ontario, that’s a long way for a visit.’

            ‘And she said that too,’ added Benny. ‘I just wanted to catch up with some old friends.’

            He looked at his wife before he replied. An unspoken message passed between them. ‘Well, you’re very welcome,’ he said in a slightly more animated voice. ‘Maeve, can you set another place for dinner?’

            ‘Already done,’ she replied.

            After they had eaten a dinner of ham, mashed potato and cabbage that reminded Benny of home, the trio talked further about the last seven years. The awkwardness gradually went away. They drank tea until after the sun had gone down, deep in conversation about their memories of the Irish countryside, of the times when Benny ate at Brian or Maeve’s table more often than not. Benny looked at his watch and suggested that he and Brian go for a stronger drink, perhaps in one of the saloons he had passed when finding their street. Maeve agreed with the plan, turning up the lamp light, then retiring to a rocking chair with some sewing.

            ‘Don’t you think you two should have some children by now? I know you got married young and all, but it’s almost been eight years,’ Benny whispered to Brian, ensuring the front door was closed before he spoke.

            ‘True, we’ve been in Canada for a while now and we’ve had no luck with that,’ admitted Brian. ‘At first it was okay, it takes a while to get settled. But lately, I’m not sure. Maybe I should ask the priest about an adoption.’

            ‘Well, there’s nothing to stop you if that’s what you want to do,’ replied Benny, ‘I was only asking, you know?’

            ‘I know, Benny, I know,’ answered Brian. ‘So what brought you to Ontario anyway? You can’t have come all this way just to see me and Maeve.’

            ‘Brian! After all the travelling I did to get here!’ Joked Benny. ‘Well, I got into a bit of trouble and needed to get away from…’

            ‘That’d be right,’ interrupted Brian, ‘did you take a fancy to the wrong woman?’

            ‘No, no husbands this time,’ Benny continued, a wry smile spreading across his face, ‘I just needed to get some space between me and Chicago. I knew where you and Maeve lived, sort of, so I thought this would be an ideal chance to visit you in Canada.’

Brian stopped walking and looked him in the eye before he spoke. ‘Let’s drop the bullshit Benny. Maeve has told me all about you and her. She told me years ago. And it’s over and done with. Water under the bridge. Did I walk in on something tonight? I want the truth.’

‘Of course not. Give me a bit of credit man. Give Maeve a bit of credit.’

            ‘So what’s the real story. I need to know. What happened in Chicago?’ They moved on to the thoroughfare that met with the bottom of a main street. The glow of gaslights illuminated the horse-drawn carriages trotting up and down the cobbled street. Laughter poured out of bars and folk gathered on the pavements. Even at this late hour the pubs were still filled with men in pillbox hats and upturned collars. ‘Did you really have a job there?’

            ‘Why else would I go?’ laughed Benny, ‘and good money it was too. I fixed it through Paddy Scullion, the man who works at the post office…’

            ‘With the limp?’ said Brian.

            ‘The very same,’ continued Benny. ‘He knew a man in Chicago who needed workers and I wasn’t doing much, so I thought I might as well give it a go.’

            ‘Just fell into your lap, did it? That was lucky.’

            ‘I suppose it was. Anyway, it was the last day on the job, we all knew it was, and the boss said he would take the site for a few drinks.’

            ‘All right, now I see,’ interjected Brian, pulling the brass knob that opened the door into one of the many taverns on the avenue, ‘all these stories start with a few drinks.’

            ‘More than a few! He took us to a place called “The Bucket of Blood”. I wasn’t sure about the name, but if someone else is buying I’m not gonn’a complain.’

            ‘You should maybe reconsider that rule,’ suggested Brian, indicating that he would go to the bar and get the drinks for them both, beers and whisky chasers.

            Benny had a look around the bar. Quite lively for a Monday night, he thought. The seat he chose in the narrow aisle was close to the bar, a table for two that hugged the right-hand wall. The whiskey was in shot glasses, which both men drained in one, then whistled through the aftertaste. ‘Not very smooth,’ wheezed Brian.

            ‘So, anyway, we went into the bar, a place down by the docks,’ continued Benny. ‘You could tell that it had been a real fancy place once. Nice velvet seats, but they hadn’t been cleaned in a while. Hunting trophies, the heads of stags and bears mounted on the walls, but they weren’t clean either. The sawdust was fresh though, but even as we went into the place it felt strange, there was an edge to the atmosphere; but I soon got used to it.’ Benny stopped his telling of the story to take a drink from his beer, pulling a rolled-up cigarette from his inside pocket.

            ‘So how long did you stay there?’ said Brian.

            ‘I’m not too sure,’ confessed Benny, lighting his cigarette, ‘must’ve been a good few hours. It was just me and the boss in the end. And then these Russian boys came over. Sailors. The place was down by the docks, you know.’

            ‘Aye, you said.’

            ‘I had a look around. I was starting to get a bit nervous. You know me, even after I’ve had a few I can always handle myself, keep my wits. But I got worried when there was hardly anyone else in the bar, so if I did get into trouble I’d be a bit stuck. I decided I’d leave quietly and go back to my lodgings.’

            ‘Sounds like that was a good idea,’ Brian agreed.

            ‘Wait until you hear what happened next! I was heading up the street, just after dawn, when I heard a voice behind me. Wasn’t the boss man after me! Hadn’t I forgot my coat!’

            ‘There’s always something,’ laughed Brian.

            ‘The boss caught me up pretty fast, all smiles as he handed my coat back. Then I felt something strange, as if someone had punched through my side and to inside of me.’ Benny put down his beer glass and pulled up his shirt, revealing a bandage wrapped inexpertly around his belly several times.

            ‘Holy Jesus!’ said Brian.

            ‘Hadn’t the wee bastard gone and stabbed me! Maybe I should’ve stayed in the bar with the Russian sailors! He hadn’t paid me, so I guess he thought he would save himself some money. There are was no one around, so I suppose if he’d stabbed me right that would’ve been it for me, but I was sober enough to give him a few swift kicks up the arse.’

            ‘I suppose he ran off then?’ commented Brian.

            ‘Well, he tried, but he didn’t quite make it. He fell to the ground and smacked his head, then ran back towards the bar, staggering left and right. He was all over the place. I almost asked if he was all right.’ Benny paused. ‘Then didn’t he stagger himself right into the harbour! I don’t know if he was all right, I doubt it, but it would have been more trouble for me if I’d stayed.’

            ‘So, it was only then you decided to visit your friends in Ontario,’ concluded Brian, ‘in case there was people looking for you? Well I think you can rest easy, not many people travel up here from Chicago.’

            ‘Well that’s what I was thinking,’ said Benny.

Brian’s whole demeanour relaxed. ‘I misjudged you, Benny, and so did Maeve. Our home is your home now. For as long as you want to stay.’

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