When Johnny died they all spent days pouring over photographs of him. Johnny as a round faced lad wearing a cap the time he was apprenticed to his father in the bricklaying. Johnny wearing a grey pinstriped suit, leaning on his bicycle, one trouser leg caught in the hoop of a bike clip. Where was he going, they asked, dressed like that? Johnny in full swing foxtrot ushering his stiletto heeled partner through a series of intricate steps. This was the Johnny that his grown up children never knew. The one who had stolen her heart.
They’d met in the queue of the Aster cinema in 1944. She worked in the factory with his two sisters and knew him as “a bit of a ladies man.” She hadn’t until then been on the receiving end of his honeyed brogue. But that evening as she stared wistfully at a pair of paten shoes, shiny black with a satin bow at the side, a seductive voice had broken in on her musings.
“Would you like me to buy them for you?”
She’d treated that remark with the distain it deserved. But from that day on she’d caught his eye more than once across the street as she walked the mile to and from work, and her ear strained daily to hear stories of his latest dance floor antics and conquests.
Then one day his sister Madge delivered the missive. Would she meet him at the Gasworks for a stroll? And the rest was history, as they say. Her two left feet put an end to his dancing expos and the day they walked up the aisle there was more than one broken heart on the factory floor.
Their three grown up children preferred the photos of Johnny as a young father bouncing a couple of infants on his knees or wading in the sea with them at Warrenpoint. They enjoyed too the snapshots of him playing pitch and putt with the grandsons, fishing in stocked rivers and lakes with them too. He did, of course, do some real fishing with his pals, Jimmy Loughran and Pat McCrea, and often on his own for hours out at the Lough until the day he took a stroke.
Even though it was designated as a minor one, she had wanted him to give up the fishing. Afraid that something would happen to him out there miles from anyone. Afraid that she wouldn’t be there, that nobody would be there. And so he had given it up to keep her happy. Just like the dancing, he teased her. She was his ball and chain for sure!
She was there when he died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep. Right next to her and she hadn’t known a thing about it. A “saint’s death” they all called it as they sat around at the wake, recalling his dapper days. He had died with his hand tucked under his chin, a calm expression on his face. He had suffered no pain, they told her.
But she didn’t get to say goodbye. That was the problem. He had stolen off in the night without telling her. For weeks she was mad as hell at him. And every time she picked up one of the many photos of him that had been unearthed from forgotten corner cupboards and framed in an array of silver plate and oak, she told him so.
It was on one of these occasions that Mary, her eldest daughter, came in the backdoor, unnoticed by Agnes. A family council meeting was held and it was deemed essential that they keep a closer eye on her. Teresa, the youngest, who lived nearest to her, suggested a pet for company.
“A dog? A puppy? You can’t be serious!” Agnes exclaimed.” Hadn’t I had enough bother rearing the whole of you without starting again with a puppy?”
“You exaggerate, mum. It’s not a baby! It’s only a dog. A cute wee
or something like that. And it will be great company for you. We can’t be here
all the time.”
“And I don’t ask you be here. I’m quite alright by myself. In fact I like my own company.”
“Mum, Mary says you’re talking to yourself.”
“Sure doesn’t everybody do that? You probably do it yourself only you don’t even know. Besides, I wasn’t talking to myself. I was talking to your dad. And God help us can I not even do that? Would you leave me in peace now.”
Agnes stalwartly refused any notion that a furry friend would make her life meaningful again. Instead she sat out in the porch watching the stars, as they had done so many times in the past together. She read every piece of correspondence she could find written in his bold round script and wore his green woollen cardigan when the others weren’t around; the one they had bought together for him in Avoca Handweavers two Christmases before he died.
She was having a chat with him about the latest council plans to dig up the lane yet again for water pipes when she heard the scratching at the door. At first she thought it might be a straggling branch of the still flowering Fuchsia being battered about by the strong gusty wind. Agnes chose to ignore the tap tapping for a while. But as she thought about the distance from the hedge to the window of her half door the thought occurred to her that it might be that intrepid ginger cat that had taken to visiting her, uninvited, whenever she left any aperture in the cottage ajar.
It was then that she heard a definite whining sound. Opening the top window of the half door she peered over to see a brown and white pointer, looking wistfully back at her.
“Now where did you come from?” she declared. This couldn’t have been a ploy. None of her children would have picked this bony half starved creature as a would-be companion for her. But here he was, in need of a meal at least. Agnes softened some bread in a bowl of milk, opened the door wide and offered the bowl to the intruder. The pointer gulped the lot down in split seconds.
The gale swept a batch of leaves on to her door mat and Agnes decided there and then that the pointer would have to go. She whooshed the reluctant dog out the door and closed it firmly against him. Then she listened. But the only sounds were the clock ticking and the wind howling.
Agnes put on the kettle and settled down for her late night cuppa and two digestive biscuits. As she was about to pick up the last quarter of biscuit she thought of her visitor.
“You’ll never get rid of it if you start feeding it biscuits!” she imagined Johnny teasing her. But she slowly walked towards the door anyway, to have a look at the stars, she told herself, even though the clouds were sure to be obstructing her view of Orion the hunter and his prey tonight. Agnes opened the window.
After a quick perusal of a starless sky she looked down. Sure enough the shivering pointer lay in a heap at her door.
“Well just for tonight, Mister! In the morning you’re off!” The pointer seemed to get the picture, for he sidled quickly past her as soon as she nudged open the door and dropped down, with what sounded to Agnes like a sigh, on the first rug he came to.
Agnes was still holding the biscuit when there was a knock at the door.
“Just checking in on you!” It was her youngest daughter. “What’s that?” Teresa pointed to the dog.
“What does it look like?”
“It’s a mangy looking thing, Mum. Where did you get it? You said you didn’t want one. We were looking for a nice wee pedigree Westie for you.”
“Those Westies are very bad natured. Sure didn’t we have one years ago. Left the track of its teeth on everybody.”
“A cocker Spaniel or King Charles would be nice. Vaccinated and clean.” She looked at the thin pointer that now licked the biscuit out of Agnes’s fingers. “You wouldn’t know what you’d pick up off that yoke, Ma. You can’t be serious!”
“I can and I will!” declared Agnes who hadn’t until that moment had the slightest intention of keeping the pointer. “If it doesn’t have an owner, that is.”
“We’ll put up notices tomorrow and please God…” muttered Teresa.
“A couple of good feeds and a visit to the vet is all it needs,” said Agnes. “Didn’t you all want me to have company and now I do! Sure maybe Johnny had a hand in it.”
“Or maybe he fell out of the sky!” remonstrated Teresa.
“A companion of Orion, of course!” exclaimed Agnes. “His pointer! Every hunter must have a pointer? Right?”
Stringer was there to stay. They said he was a “string of misery” and so they named him. Secretly Agnes called him Orion. Nobody ever did reply to Teresa’s bold printed urgent notices posted in every cornershop, library and surgery within a ten mile radius. Agnes talked just as much to herself as before the arrival of her visitor, but the subject of her verbal meanderings was now usually connected to the stars.
“She’s always talking about heavenly configurations!” declared Teresa. “Asking Stringer this and that about the heavens!”
“With a bit of luck that creature will disappear as mysteriously as he arrived,” said Mary.
But Orion was there to stay. And every clear evening Agnes and the pointer sat under the night sky and journeyed through the stars.