The taxi pulled in to Connie’s street. As Paul paid the driver, Connie pushed open the gate. Her sister Maura was playing up the street with some friends and spotted them. Running like mad towards them she crashed into Connie and with a big beaming smile went straight to the point.
Before Connie could say anything Paul said in his warmest American accent.
‘My friends call me PJ. What’s your name?’
‘I’m Connie’s wee sister, I’m Maura.’
‘I’m afraid my younger sister is always a bit impatient and ignores the need for good manners.’
With that Maura raced up the path and through the front door shouting at the top of her voice.
‘Connie’s brought an American PJ with her.’
Paul laughed ‘Well I used to be an American GI but that’s the first time I’ve been called that.’
As they arrived in the hallway, Connie’s mum appeared in the doorway of the back living room. When she looked past Connie to Paul her face registered first shock, then confusion.
Recognising her embarrassment and confusion Paul quickly said,
‘Hello Mrs Callaghan I met you a long time ago. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m PJ. I brought some bad news about your husband’s convoy during the war.’
Connie’s mum seemed to shake herself and managed to reply.
‘Yes, yes. Come in, go into the parlour.’ She ushered him into the front room.
Rather awkwardly she sat down and asked him to make himself comfortable.
‘Connie put the kettle on. Would you like some tea PJ?
‘No, no. I’m grand thank you. I just wanted to say hello. I’m going back to America tomorrow. Your daughter tells me that your husband did survive the U-boat attack and you have a few more in the family since I last saw you?’
‘Yes we’ve been very lucky, and you, how have you been? I did pray that you also would survive…’ she faltered then recovered, ‘I never thought I would see you again?’
He sat looking at Rosaleen and Connie could see the admiration in his eyes. He was younger than her mum and yet what he had been through had clearly taken its toll. As Connie looked at both of them they seemed closer in age than the difference in years would have suggested. Connie felt she was intruding and excused herself, closing the door of the parlour quietly behind her. Maura wanted to go in to the parlour but Connie asked her to be quiet or go and do her homework or something.
‘Where are your sisters?’
‘They went up to the library. I think they’re meeting a couple of boys.’ She giggled.
Connie looked at the clock. Her dad and her older brothers would soon be home from work and she wondered what might have to be said if Paul Deehan was still here. Connie was now beginning to feel that it had been a big mistake bringing him home when the front door of the parlour opened and her mum came out followed by Paul.
‘PJ has to get back to his hotel. They are having a farewell dinner tonight.’
They walked him to the gate. Connie’s mum and Paul stood there looking a little awkward.
Connie broke the silence.
‘PJ thanks for coming. I hope you have a safe journey back to the States.’
‘Thanks Connie. I’m glad I came. Seeing your mum here has been good for me. Meeting some of your family has been fantastic,’ and with that he gave Maura a big smile.
He reached out and hugged Connie.
As he turned to go he asked Rosaleen,
‘Rosaleen. May I have one hug for the road ahead?’
Connie could see she wasn’t sure what she should do, so taking Maura’s hand she walked into the house and didn‘t look back.
When her mum came in she sat down in the chair by the fireside and stared at the empty grate. This time Connie did put the kettle on and made tea just in time for her Dad and brothers arriving home from work. They were no sooner through the door when Maura was telling them about the American PJ.
At this Connie’s mum bestirred herself and rather lamely asked how work had been that day? Tommy sensed she didn’t want to talk about the visitor and changed the subject to ‘what’s for dinner and we’ll hear about visitors afterwards.’
When the washing up was being done in the scullery Connie could hear her mum and dad talking in low voices and assumed she was telling him about the visitor. When they appeared, her mother looked more relaxed. Her dad was his usual self.
Connie was dying to have a conversation with her mum about her meeting with Paul and was thinking that she would wait until everyone went to bed.
Just then her Gran came through the door.
‘I hear you had a visitor?’
‘Well Gran, news travels fast in this street. You have your spies everywhere.’
‘No spies, just Maura’s pals. I was out talking with my neighbour Vera when the kids came running past shouting ’there’s an American film star at the Callaghan’s house.’ It made us laugh. So I thought I’d come round and do a nosey. Get the right way of the story, you understand.’
Before anyone could say anything Connie reported how she had accidentally bumped into the American after overhearing him asking about a family called Callaghan. He was the one who had brought the news all those years ago about the sinking of the merchant ships.
Connie’s Gran slightly raised her eyebrows.
‘What was his name?’
Maura chirped in ’His friends called him PJ.’
‘Yea’ Connie’s mum said, ’I couldn’t even have told you that.’
‘I wonder what it stands for.’
Maura suggested ’Patrick James.’
Connie’s dad suggested ‘Peter John.’
Connie’s Gran suggested ‘Perhaps, Paul something, …..Paul Joseph?’ and looked at her daughter.
Rosaleen held the steady gaze of her mother.
‘He was very nice. He just came to ask after us, how we had survived the war particularly if Tommy had got home safe. Connie could probably tell us more she got to talk longer with him before he came.’
The three women looked at one another, exchanging glances as if there was no one else present in the room. Three generations that looked like sisters with the youngest holding the key to the next part of the conversation, and perhaps the future of the family, by what she was about to say next.
‘I took the afternoon off University and went down to the City Hall to see the commemoration book from yesterday’s parade. I overheard this stranger asking about a family called Callaghan. I went over and spoke to him and by coincidence it was our family he was asking about. As soon as he saw my hair he just said ’you must be the daughter.’ So we jumped in a taxi and gave mum the surprise of her life. He reminisced on the way up about being in Belfast and having to bring the news about the ships being torpedoed to mum.’
Connie could see that her Gran wasn’t quite buying what she had said but it was clear to her that her mum’s eyes wanted her mother to believe what had just been said, so that the discomfort which she was feeling could disappear.
Connie’s Gran eventually broke the tension, ’I’m sorry I missed him. I believe he was pretty handsome and I did think we might have had the chance to talk about his war.’
‘I don’t think he would have talked very much Gran. He was quite reticent when I tried to ask him questions. I think a man like him doesn’t talk much about himself.’
‘Ah well, we’ll never see this film star again.’
Maggie Cunningham smiled. ‘I better go. I left my dinner ready to be cooked and since all the men have been fed here I imagine there wouldn‘t be much left for me. Connie, give me your company and walk me home darling. Good evening all’
As they walked up the street Connie’s Gran said,
‘I saw the note in the Bandoleer.’
‘How did you see it? Sure I’ve had the Bandoleer since it arrived. You gave it to me.’
‘Yes I did. If you remember back, when you opened the parcel? Your Dad lifted it from you and gave it to me. I sat down and probably what you didn’t notice was that I was flicking open some of the pouches. I did it automatically because of the way I used to fill each pouch with bullets, then I would sit and flick the studs open so that they were always supple and wouldn’t stick, especially in an emergency. The Bandoleer to me was like a much loved piece of clothing. I saw the note. In a flash I knew it wasn’t my Sean, your grandfather, who had taken it from my drawer. I knew it was your mother then, because it had come from America.’
‘But you didn’t say anything, why not?’
‘Why not? Perhaps what is left unsaid within families sometimes makes us stronger, as long as we understand that those involved do not hurt anyone but themselves. When your Dad came back safe from the Murmansk run I brought the children home from Kilkeel to see him. I was doing the washing for your mum. When I was hanging it out to dry her neighbour was out the back involved in a similar chore. We got talking and she told me about the handsome American who came with the news about Tommy. It didn’t take any great insights on my part to realise that a lone American bringing that kind of news was not a coincidence. If anything, that kind of news would have been brought by someone from the shipping company your dad worked for. I guessed that he must have met your mum before that to know where she lived. I’m not so sure he was doing her a favour bringing bad news. That’s why when I saw the note I knew.’
‘Mum did tell me how they met. She said they were only friends. She gave him the Bandoleer to keep him safe because she felt it had protected you and Grandad. I know she was going to tell you sometime.’
‘At that time I didn’t know the Bandoleer was missing and if I had I may have drawn the wrong conclusions.’
‘What do you mean Gran, the wrong conclusions?’
‘Connie I will always be your Gran but I am a woman and I understand things can happen, not even planned, or desired, but things can happen.’
Connie reflected on what her Gran was saying and decided to tell her what she had been thinking and feeling since discovering the timing of Paul Deehan’s news for her mum during the war and the homecoming of her father from sea. Connie’s Gran had listened without saying anything.
When she finished her Gran took her hands.
‘My poor darling, you should have talked to me before now and not kept this bottled up inside you. You may be many things, but first and foremost you are a Forsyth-Cunningham-Callaghan, born out of the best of the Markets with a strong history of not just Irish but Scottish blood in you, Presbyterian as well as Catholic strength, the best to take on the world. With your hair, there’s no mistaking who you belong to,’ she paused and held her close,’ Us. And anyway, as I always say, what’s kept in the family is never lost. Go home to your mother and father, forget this whole business, become a surgeon and have a great life.’
Connie kissed her Gran and said goodnight.
Later that night she held the Bandoleer, thinking about the lives it had touched, the wars it had found itself part of, and Connie wished and prayed with all her heart there would be no similar future for this Bandoleer.
‘Well, my Bandoleer, I think your role is over now.’
With that Connie wrapped the Bandoleer in thick waxed brown paper and placed it in the bottom drawer of her bedroom cabinet.