Belfast had been badly bombed by the Germans in 1941 and a lot of damage was caused to the city. A smaller raid had taken place before the big one at Easter when the city mortuaries were overwhelmed by the number of dead bodies. Hundreds had to be laid out for identification in the local swimming baths and in the large St. Georges Market. After the raids many bodies were not claimed and so had to be buried in a communal grave.
Maggie Cunningham decided after the first bomb was dropped that she was taking the grandchildren to the safety of their relatives in Kilkeel, a small fishing village on the County Down coast. Rosaleen was working as a stitcher in a parachute factory in Belfast. This work was essential for the war effort and therefore she could not leave with the rest of the family. Her husband, Tommy, had joined the Merchant Navy and was in constant danger shipping supplies into Russia along the U-Boat infested waters of the now infamous Murmansk Run.
Rosaleen got her first glimpse of black people, when the first American troops began arriving in July 1942 to be followed by thousands of other American troops over the next two years. There were occasional fights amongst themselves, and with the locals, but in general everyone got along together as the common enemy was now the Nazis. Most of the sectarian tension, that was always close to the surface, seemed to have disappeared in Belfast, as both sides recognised that German bombs didn’t distinguish between Catholic or Protestant.
In the spring of 1944 Rosaleen had got off the bus and was walking home from a late shift at the factory. As she approached the Rose and Crown Bar she could hear raised, angry voices. Next thing the argument spilled out of the bar on to the street in front of her. One man was shouting about ‘the cowardly neutrality stance of the Republic of Ireland, whilst hundreds of Irishmen of all shades of opinion and religious persuasions were fighting and dying all over the world‘. The other man, though also quite drunk, just started swinging at him and the two ended up rolling all over the footpath.
Rosaleen hesitated, then started to walk round the brawl.
Approaching from the other side of the street was a small group of American soldiers on a night out. They stopped to view this bit of Belfast colour and with whoops of great delight, stood there enjoying the street entertainment of their host city, shouting further encouragement to the two protagonists. One of the soldiers however, wasn’t giving any encouragement to the melee as he became aware of the woman trying to make her way past the fight. He realised very quickly that she might get caught up in the fracas, as one of the drunks could perhaps punch, or more likely push, the other one towards her. Striding across the street he removed his cap and very politely, offering his arm, asked if he might escort her around the brawl.
Much surprised Rosaleen stuttered out, ‘Thanks.’
To the cat calls and whistles from his fellow soldiers he guided her round the fight which by now was running out of steam.
The young soldier said, ‘Sorry about my pals. We don’t get many nights off and they don’t get to meet many attractive women because the locals are very hard on their girls if we get too close.’
She smiled warmly at him.
‘I’m hardly a girl?’
‘But you are very attractive.’
She had blushed, feeling rather awkward, but replied ‘thanks for rescuing me but I would have been OK you know.’
He asked if he could escort her the rest of the way home.
She started to frown, but he quickly interjected.
‘Honestly, for the company and a bit of female chat.’ He put his hands up as if he was surrendering. ‘When you’ve been banged up with those guys for months believe me you need the civilising influence of the female kind. I know. I had a couple of pints of your black stuff. That is more than enough for me. I’m not drunk, honest. What do you say? No strings attached, just a bit of company?’
Rosaleen was about to give him chapter and verse about her husband and family but something inside her relented. She liked his smile, his easy manner and his tall lean frame with the handsome face. His strong American accent reminded her of one of her Hollywood film favourites.
Anyway, what harm could come from a stroll home from work? The family were all away and her Tommy was on a ship on the North Sea. She was also older than him and she did think that no younger man could possibly be interested in her.
It just wouldn’t happen.
He talked about Brooklyn where he came from. His mother had died in an accident when he was three years old and he had been brought up by her sister, his Aunt Emma, whom he loved to bits. His father was a career soldier, never saw him much and he thought it was ironic that he ended up wearing a uniform as well. When the war was over he hoped to continue in his chosen career as an architect.
Rosaleen stopped at the end of her street and when he had finished talking had said it was better if he didn’t come any further, ‘the neighbours might get the wrong idea.’
He apologised and then added more apologies for talking so much.
She gave him her warmest smile and told him she had really enjoyed his company.
On an impulse he asked to see her again next Saturday when he might get some time off. She had started to say ‘no’ when he added,
‘In a couple of months we’re all going to be shipped out to Europe for what we believe is the final push against the Germans. Look, I only want your company, to remind me that there is another life out there where it’s not all about drilling, exercising and firing weapons that kill people. I want to be reminded that I’m Paul Deehan, aspiring architect, a creator rather than a destroyer. I want to talk about other things, not war. I know we’re right and we should be doing what we’re doing, but living is more about other things than war. Honestly, like tonight’s walk, no strings attached.’
Rosaleen was swayed by his fervour, the intensity of his eyes, the warmth of his personality, but her common sense held her back.
‘Paul, I have a husband who could be killed at any time. My family is split up because of this war. Girls have had their heads shaved because of associating with soldiers. I couldn’t take a chance, even if our relationship was all above board. But, hang on a moment I’ve only just met you. All of what you just told me could be a very elaborate story to seduce me. Soldiers don’t exactly have a very good reputation around this city.’
He closed his eyes and laughed.
‘OK, OK. Look, tell you what. If I meet you next Saturday outside the dancehall called the Starlite, I think. We’ll have a few dances, a lot of chat and just enjoy each other’s company. What do you say? No harm in that. If you’re not there I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll understand, all right.’
Rosaleen thought for a moment. She knew of the Starlite. None of her acquaintances ever went there as it was close to one of the loyalist areas of the city. She thought no one would know her. She also thought what harm would it do, and God knows she could do with a bit of entertainment.
‘All right seven-thirty outside the Starlite.’
‘Gee, great. Thanks Rosaleen. See ya there.’
As he walked away Rosaleen looked around her street to see if any of the neighbours had been watching. As she approached her home she told herself she was mad.
When it came to Sunday Mass she wondered if she should take communion and then caught herself on, ‘for God’s sake girl you only walked and talked with the man. Nothing happened and nothing’s going to happen.’
The priest no doubt would have told her it was a sin to have even talked with the soldier. To make an assignation was aspiring to temptation and therefore in itself an even bigger sin.
Throughout the following week, at work and walking home, she talked herself out of her ‘date’ a hundred times. On Friday she was walking past the Rose and Crown where she had met Paul. She felt very happy and suddenly realised, that she couldn’t remember the last time she felt like an attractive woman receiving the attention of a man. She resolved then that when she finished her shift on Saturday she would go home, make a special effort to look good for the young American soldier and go out and enjoy herself – no strings attached.
Before she started getting ready for the evening, she had called into her neighbours’ house to say she was going over to the Donegall Road to visit her husband’s family. They were having a bit of a party and a sing-song.
When she sat in front of her mirror she looked at herself.
‘Well Rosaleen, your first lie and nothing has happened.’
Looking at herself did stiffen her resolve that, no matter how much she enjoyed herself nothing untoward would take place.
Paul was waiting for her under the Starlite sign and smiled broadly as soon as he saw her.
‘I got here a bit earlier than I expected.’
She didn’t want him to see how eager she had been for this night out.
‘Well I got here about twenty minutes ago ‘cause I couldn’t wait to be here. In fact I have to be honest I thought about you all week. It kept me sane. I hope you don’t mind.’ He smiled at her.
Rosaleen was really flattered.
Paul paid for the tickets and practically waltzed her into the ballroom.
They spent the evening chatting, dancing and enjoying the music until the National Anthem, ‘God Save the King’ was played at eleven forty five, to signal the end of the dance. They stepped out into the coolness of the night air and Rosaleen slipped her arm through his, it felt like the natural thing to do. They walked with their arms linked together through the darkened streets not saying a word. Roseleen was glad of the blackout which meant if she met someone she knew they might not recognise her. Paul eventually told her that he had really enjoyed his evening and then became silent again.
‘Why so quiet again Paul? You couldn’t stop talking back at the dancehall.’
‘I know – sorry. I guess coming into the night air kinda hit me with the reality of what we’re gearing up for. All leave has been cancelled after this weekend. God knows when my next free Saturday will be. We’re all guessing the big push against Hitler is about to happen.’
A part of Rosaleen was relieved at this news, but another part of her wanted to grab this young man and hold him very close.
Rosaleen took his hand.
‘I loved this evening. It was beautiful. Thank you. This war gets in the way of a lot of things but let’s see if we can make another evening like this. Saturday fortnight, same time, same place. What do you say?’
‘All right by me,’ Paul said rather surprised, and then added, ’I’m not sure I can wait that long to see you.’
They arrived at the end of Rosaleen’s street and Paul took her hands, kissing them both on the fingers.
‘You take real care now. If the flyboys and the paratroopers knew what beautiful talented hands were stitching their chutes, my guess is, they’d be a lot happier jumping from their planes.’
He turned and walked away.
Rosaleen stood looking after him feeling totally bereft as she watched him disappear round the next street corner. ‘Stay safe’ she mouthed silently after him and walked home to a silent empty house.
May 1944 arrived with the greatest gathering of US ships assembled in Belfast Lough. Rosaleen had been standing with a group of her fellow factory workers when a convoy of American jeeps came past heading for the docks. It was only later she realised she had seen General Eisenhower on his way to inspect the fleet.
Paul had not been at the Starlite that Saturday as arranged. She had walked home disconsolately, thinking all the while, ‘what a fool, what an idiot. If the family or neighbours knew she could be tarred and feathered and tied to a lampost in the street.’
She went to confession the following Saturday and was surprised when the priest, having listened, gave her a very light penance. When he finished giving absolution he leaned forward and whispered.
‘Rosaleen, for the love of God will you stop torturing yourself. There are worse things than going to a dance and holding somebody’s hand. The war might soon be over and God willing, we can all get our lives back. That young man could be dead very soon. Perhaps his last fond memory of life might be you. Good night. Take care.’
‘Thanks Father. Goodnight.’
When she walked into her street Paul was at her neighbours’ house. She hesitated, seeing him and was about to turn when he spotted her and waved. As he approached he seemed to be quite perplexed.
‘I know I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come to your street, but I had two reasons. The first you can guess was just to see you.’
She still didn’t smile at him and with the tension welling inside her managed to say.
‘And the second?’
‘The merchant fleet in the North Sea has been hit pretty badly by U-boats. A number of ships have been sunk. I’m told there are survivors and they have been taken to Russia. We don’t have any names or anything but I thought you should know. I know your husband was on one of those ships. What I don’t know is, if any of the ones that were hit was his. I’m sorry.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘One of my pals is in Ops. Because of what is about to happen part of their job is to monitor the activity of German U-boats. I mentioned to him one day that I had a friend that had someone in the Merchant Navy, taking part in the runs to Russia. He just told me, thinking I should pass it on. Sorry. Maybe I should have stayed quiet until you got official word one way or another.’
Rosaleen was now totally confused and feeling completely at a loss, managed to contain her feelings.
‘Come into the house and I’ll make a pot of tea.’
‘What about the neighbours?’
‘Well you’ve blown that, I can’t ignore you now.’
‘I didn’t tell your neighbour I knew you. I only said I was sent to give you some information. I was only checking that I had got the right address as there was no one at home.’
‘The whole street will know now. Ah well, it’ll give the neighbours a topic of conversation other than the war. With the worrying news that you have brought it would be very bad mannered of me not to offer you some hospitality.’
As she put the key in the door her neighbour put her head round the corner of her door.
‘Are you OK Rose? Is it bad news?’
‘I don’t know Kate, I’m about to find out. I hope to God it‘s not. I’m going to make this young man a cup of tea before he heads back to his barracks. This war, the sooner it is over the better for all of us.’
‘Amen to that.’
Once inside Rosaleen busied herself putting the kettle on. An awkward silence had developed between them and Rosaleen did not wish to engage in any deeper conversation
‘Rosaleen I have to apologise for not coming that Saturday night.’
‘It’s OK I understand. You had your night out and nothing happened so you didn’t want to know. Fine I understand.’
‘It wasn’t like that. I couldn’t get away. It was constant manoeuvres and briefings. I nearly got myself into trouble, but a rather forgiving sergeant saved me from making an idiot of myself. I told him where I was going after I got caught trying to bluff my way past the guards on the gates and he let me off. The security was so tight that no-one was getting out for any reason.’
‘How did you get out tonight then?’
‘It was because of the information regarding the ships. I went to my captain and explained, with the result I got a special pass. I have to be back for nine. We all think we‘re about to be shipped out.’
Tears welled up in Rosaleen’s eyes.
Paul instinctively stepped forward and embraced her.
He kissed her tears away.
Then holding her head in his hands he kissed her mouth.
She responded to him and began to kiss him back.
The kettle began to hiss and boil over.
They stood there holding each other in silence with the kettle boiling furiously away in the kitchen.
Rosaleen somehow managed to say. ‘I better get that before it causes a problem.’ Considering the situation that had just developed, she surprised herself by the calm way she asked, ‘Do you want that cup of tea?’
‘No, no. I’m OK thanks. I’d better go. Get back to barracks before my pass expires, I’m sorry.’
He stepped back.
She touched him lightly on the cheek.
‘Don’t apologise. I have something for you. I was going to give it to you that last Saturday.’
When she came down the stairs she handed him the Bandoleer.
‘It’s my mothers and it’s just gathering dust in a drawer. It was given to her a long time ago and whilst I don’t think it brought her any great luck it did keep her safe and anyone else who touched it. Maybe that’s just superstitious talk but there is nothing else of any real value to give you. Perhaps it will keep you safe too. It’s just my way of saying thanks for sharing some of your time with me and reminding me also that there will be life when this war is over.’
‘Thanks Rosaleen. I haven’t anything to give in return except I’ll never forget you. I’ll always carry you in my heart. I wish I could stay.’
He kissed her, this time on the forehead, then adjusted his uniform.
‘There. How do I look? Respectable enough to march down the street?’
She pushed him playfully to the door.
‘Take that smile off your face or my neighbours will never believe that I have just received bad news.’
He turned and looked at her and his face was grave.
‘I do hope your man comes home to you safe. I will pray that he does. I can tell you Rosaleen he is a very lucky man.’
‘Thank you for coming. Take care.’
With that he turned and left the house.
Rosaleen followed him outside and stood on the doorstep.
When he reached the end of the street he stopped to look back.
Roseleen’s neighbour had just come out.
He clearly saw her. He didn’t wave goodbye but turned and walked out of her life to become part of the greatest invasion in what became known as the D-Day Landings.
‘Was it bad news Rose?’
‘Aye. It’s bad enough.
Rosaleen related to her what she had been told.
Six days later Tommy Callaghan walked up the street to his house and gave Rosaleen the biggest shock and the fiercest hug of her life.
‘I heard your ships were torpedoed and the survivors were taken to Russia.’
‘I’m a lucky man to be standing here with you. I was picked up with three other men by a British submarine. It was covering the convoy but during the action they developed technical difficulties with their torpedo doors. If they hadn’t turned back we might never have been found. We were one of the first ships hit. We lost some good men including Seamus Caldwell from down the street.’
‘Somebody must have been looking out for you. Let me make you something to eat. I think there’s a bit of bacon in the house and some potatoes.’
‘I don’t need any food. Just let me hold you. Then I’ll know I really am safe.’
In the early hours of the morning Rosaleen lay awake. She looked at her Tommy and said a prayer of thanks for his safe return. She also thanked God for Paul praying that he also would be safe. She wondered what Fr O’Hagan would say to her now if she was on her knees in confession. He would certainly not be so forgiving. Strangely, everything that had happened seemed somehow to be right. She could not bring herself to feel guilty. Everything happens for a reason, she told herself. Love she now realised can come into your life in the most unexpected ways. She lay there wondering ‘is it possible to love more than one person at the same time‘. She turned into her husband, placed her arm around him.
‘I love you, so very much. I won’t let you go again.’
Connie had listened to her mother’s story.
‘So now we know how the Bandoleer disappeared from Gran’s and found its way to America. It wasn’t yours to give away. You should have told Gran. In fact you still need to tell her because I think she blamed Grandad.’
‘I know I should, but I won‘t. Not yet anyway. How would it have looked? Me a married woman, all on my own, your Gran’s in Kilkeel keeping the kids safe, your dad’s away risking his life. I’m giving a gift to an American soldier just because he walked me home one night, took me to a dance, did me a favour by bringing bad news about your dad? What do you think? I’ve never told anyone about Paul Deehan, only the part where he brought the news about the ships being sunk and even then I just said he was some soldier.’
‘And nothing happened between the two of you?’
‘Connie Callaghan, you’re not too old to slap yet. What sort of a person do you think I am? I was certainly flattered by his attention. He was very handsome mind you, with a great smile. I’m sure some lucky girl got him if he survived the war.’
‘But he must have survived if the Bandoleer found its way to America?’
‘Maybe? Maybe not? It might have been one of his comrades who sent it. But how would they know to send it here? We changed house a long time ago. I suppose he could have told his comrade how he came by the Bandoleer.’
‘The man in the hospital! Either he was Paul Deehan or some friend of his who knew his story.’
‘Man in the hospital?’
‘Yes. There was this man asking questions about me. He took a lot of interest in the fact that I was from Belfast. Now that I think about it he said my hair was a bit of a giveaway. You and Gran and I have the same colour of hair. I was teased a lot about it in America. I was too busy and forgot all about him. I thought at the time he was just an older man chancing his arm, chatting me up. What if he was Paul Deehan?’
Connie’s mum shivered.
‘It’s late, time we were in bed.’
She leaned over and kissed Connie.
‘Goodnight. You know Connie, I would never do anything to hurt those I loved.’
Connie sat at the kitchen table mulling over her ’s war time story and her meeting with Paul Deehan, the strange goodnight with the ‘never hurting anyone I loved’.
Why even say that?
Tiredness quickly overcame her so she switched off the lights, climbed into bed and in no time at all was fast asleep.