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Michael Joe

by William Cotter Murray

(William Murray was born in Miltown Malbay in 1928 and emigrated to the United States in 1949. He was a member of the faculty of Iowa's Writers Workshop in the 1960's and later acted as Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Iowa. His short stories and poetry appeared in a number of literary magazines and his novel "Michael Joe" was published in 1965. The following extract is chapter ten of the novel).

    Nell was at the dance in Lahinch the following Sunday. Michael Joe arrived a bit earlier at the dance than usual, after spending a few hours of the early evening drinking with Larkin and a few more fellows in Vaughan's pub. They wanted to stay in the pub until the dance would be well under way. Michael Joe was anxious to leave. But he could not show it. The fellows would get curious, and Michael Joe had no wish to let the real extent of his interest in Nell Cullen become known yet. He would have to take jokes and innuendoes. And maybe even direct questions about Nell. Was she fast? Did you get a tumble? Did she let you feel her up? All the way? In the past he hadn't minded passing along information like that about a girl he'd been out with. He would do it quietly. Drop a hint. Leave a lot unsaid . But, as he sat in the pub, listening to the fellows talk, and trying to think of a way to leave without attracting too much notice, he realised that if he was asked these questions about Nell, he might hit the asker.
    Finally, he stopped drinking. Larkin asked him what was up. Michael Joe complained about the taste of the stout. Bottom of the barrel. Larkin himself thought he noticed it too. They left for the dance.
    Nell refused to dance every dance with him. He got angry and made a play for an ugly-looking girl who could only be flattered and jumping over herself with his attentions. Nell saw what he was doing, but she did not bring it up when they danced together. This made Michael Joe even madder. He accused her of playing with him again.
    "I'm nothing of the sort," she said. "You're very possessive. And I don't want that . I've told you before."
    Michael Joe repented, and said he was sorry, and that he couldn't help himself.
    And so the dance went. Again, Nell would not let him take her home. And he walked away from her in the middle of the dance floor when she refused.
    He picked up the ugly girl again, danced a few times with her in his usual fashion, and got the going home from her. He told Larkin that he wouldn't be bicycling home with him.
    "You made out this time?" Larkin said. "I didn't think she'd…"
    "Mind your own bloody business," Michael Joe said.
    He took the ugly one home, carrying her on the bar of his bicycle. She lived out in the country. Halfway out, Michael Joe stopped and told the girl to get off. He left her standing in the middle of the road, and told her to walk home the rest of the way; she was too fat, he was tired of carrying her. The girl shrieked a stream of curses after him as he bicycled off.
    Michael Joe wore himself out bicycling up the long Rineen hill instead of walking it.
    Next morning, Michael Joe did not even greet his mother when he came downstairs for breakfast. He sat with his arms folded on the table, and waited to be served.
    His mother asked him a few of the usual questions. Was the dance good? Was there anyone there she knew? Michael Joe did not answer her. She tried to find out what was wrong with him. He stood up from his unfinished breakfast and walked out of the dining room, without answering.
    Vin Scanlon had already opened the shop. Michael Joe passed through and into the cubicle. Vin watched him writing, tearing up sheets of paper, and looking in a dark mood.
    He came out and handed Vin an envelope.
    "Bicycle out to Nell Cullen with this," Michael Joe said. "And give it right into her hands. Mind what I say now. And don't breathe a word of this to a sinner's soul or you'll have no job."
    "Will I wait for an answer?"
    "Of course you will, you amaudaun. Didn't I tell you that?"
    "You didn't."
    "Hurry up with you, then."
    The letter was simple and direct :
    "Dear Nell, I want to meet you tonight behind the chapel at eight o'clock. I have something important to tell you. Michael Joe."
    When Vin Scanlon came back he told Michael Joe that Nell had said all right to what was in the letter.
    "Did anyone see you talking to her?"
    "No one that I know."
    "What was she doing?"
    "She was outside in the back feeding meal to the pigs."
    "Feeding the pigs!" Michael Joe said.
    "Yes faith," Vin said cheerily. "She had on an ould smock, and a dirty apron, and a pair of hobnailed boots, and an ould straw hat on her head."
    "You're giving me my money's worth, aren't you?" Micheal Joe said sarcastically.    
    Vin did not understand. He thought he ought to be praised.
    That night, at the fall of dusk, Michael Joe closed up the shop and went to meet Nell.
    An old bog road began to the left of the chapel, ran behind it and then twisted for a mile behind Corrigbeg, down to the Clonboney River, a small stream fed from a lake in the bog hills five miles away. The bog road was used only by town farmers to bring home and drive out their cows to the fields beside it. Since the cows were usually out before dusk, Michael Joe and Nell would not be likely to meet anyone along the road but lovers, who also wanted privacy and secrecy, and would not be likely to spread any rumors.
    Michael Joe shaved and put on a clean shirt and tie to go out. His mother wondered, but said nothing after his bad humor of the morning.
    The night was warm. Late June. It had showered a few times during the day, and a feeling of dampness and wetness was still in the air.
    Nell was waiting for him in the shadows beside the chapel gate.
    He went up to her.
    "Do you want to go for a walk?" he said. "I can't stand being inside an evening like this."
    "I don't mind," she said. "I wanted to be out myself."
    They walked in silence down the bog road. On either side of them the hawthorn bushes were budding with clusters of green haws shining faintly in the dusk with falling dew. Nell noticed them, said they were lovely. Silence again.
    "Well, what do you want from me anyway?" Michael Joe finally said.
    " I want nothing from you," Nell said. "Can't we just be friends?"
    "Friends?" Michael Joe said. " A man and a woman can't be friends."
    "You'll have to try if you want me to go out with you."
    "Tisn't natural."
    Nell did not answer. They walked on in silence again until they came to the end of the bog road, and the stream. A small bridge spanned it, leading across to a big grazing field where cows were lying down chewing the cud. The couple stood on the bridge and leaned over together watching the full stream gurgling below. Trout splashed in the shallows. A few swallows flitted through the air and over the surface. June nature was putting on a show.
    " I can't stand leading me on and shutting me off," Michael Joe said. "I want you to go out with me."
    "I can't. I can't. A thousand times I have to tell you."
    "And why not? Gimme one decent reason. I haven't a disease, have I?"
    "No. You're….well, I like you all right. But only for company."
    They went across the bridge and into the field, Michael Joe walking slightly ahead of her, as if by plan. Then they walked along the bank of the stream. It grew dark, a light darkness.
    Suddenly Michael Joe turned and caught her savagely in his arms.
    "No, I don't want that," she whispered, raising her arms as he tried to kiss her.
    "I'm fed up of the talk," Michael Joe growled.
    She kept twisting her head, so that he could not kiss her on the lips.
    "Stop, or I'll scream for help," she hissed.
    Michael Joe kissed her neck, biting into it savagely. She moaned.   
    "You're a beast. Let me go! Let me go!"
    They tripped and fell. He crawled on top of her, pinning her down on the wet grass.
    Suddenly she lay completely still, and rigid. The whiteness of her face, and the sudden frozen attitude registered with Michael Joe, but did not stop him. He kissed her on the lips. No response. They were tight and cold. He bit them. Still no response. Her arms lay tight by her sides ; her eyes were closed.
    "Jesus Christ, stop holding back from me," Michael Joe said, driven to more brutal biting, trying to arouse her from her coldness. Then a voice shouted to them from across the stream.
    "Go on home out of that, ye scamps ye! Or ye'll hear about it from the altar."    
    Michael Joe scrambled to his feet. Across the stream he made out the form of a priest, a dark, hatted form, raising a stick in the air and shaking it.
    "Go home yourself and say your prayers, Michael Joe bellowed across at him in anger at being spied on, and interrupted. Nell stood beside him, and hid herself behind his back.
    "Sinners! Ye pack of sinners! Violating the Sixth Commandment!" the shaky voice of old Canon Lyons screamed at them.
    "Stop it, Michael Joe!" Nell whispered. "Don't say anything to him. Come on."
    She began to pull Michael Joe away.
    "Ye'll hear about this from the altar!"
    "Ah, will you shove it…"
    Nell clapped a hand over Michael Joe's mouth. She kept pulling him along the bank of the stream, he looking back at the now shadowy figure, a stick high in the air, like a figure of doom. When they were out of sight, around a bend of the stream, Nell stopped and began to brush herself down; Michael Joe stood by her panting.
    "Blast him, anyway," Michael Joe said. "Like an old hag spying. Withered balls on withered stick."
    "Don't add sacrilege to everything else."
    "Sacrilege! I'd puck his bloody face out if I got within an inch of him. Sacrilege! He committed the sacrilege!"
    They began to walk. Nell did not complain about Michael Joe's attack on her. Michael Joe panted beside her. He ranted on about Canon Lyons. What sort of man would go poking around the countryside looking for courting boys and girls? From condemning Canon Lyons, Michael Joe went on and condemned all the priests. All of them! They were all the same. They ran the country, and frightened people with Hell and Confession. They poked into everyone's business. God, 'twas a terrible state the country was in with them. No wonder the lads and the girls wanted to emigrate by the thousands. He'd emigrate himself if this kept up.
    They walked through the dewy fields in the light of a quarter moon, Nell not listening, Michael Joe raving on. The land around had changed into a shadowy, shapeless mass, and the sky had taken on a static quality, the clouds barely in motion; and few stars could be seen. Nell grew afraid in the dark.
    They had walked through the fields in a half circle, in the opposite direction from which they had started out, and found themselves in the Ennistymon Road, another road leading into Corrigbeg. Michael Joe had run out of talk. They stood on the road, neither one of them willing to make the decision whether they should walk back into the town together, or not.
    "I suppose you don't want to see me again," Michael Joe said.
    "I'm tired," Nell said quietly. "And you're desperate."
    "I'm not sorry. You had it coming."
    "Walk me home. 'Tis dark. I'm …. I'm not afraid of you anymore." She looked around and shivered.
    Michael Joe softened. He took off his coat and wanted her to put it on over her wool cardigan. She refused.
    "I hope you don't catch cold," he said as tenderly as he could.
    It was late. They passed a few people on the street. When they did, Nell hung her head, and Michael Joe looked straight ahead pretending to ignore the people they passed.
    "I suppose either you or the Canon will have this all over the town by morning," he said sarcastically.
    "I want to forget it," Nell said. "And 'twas such a grand night for a walk. You spoiled it."
    "Am I supposed to crawl on my knees and ask your forgiveness? I'll never do that. I'm walking you home and that's all there's to it."
    They walked on in uncomfortable silence, side by side, as if they were almost strangers to each other who happened by accident to be walking together along the same sidewalk, on the same dark night, and one of them could not walk past the other, so they walked together. Michael Joe asked her, because he couldn't bear the silence, if she was going back to England. She said she didn't think so. She was going to stop home for a while and help her mother around the house and the farm. But she didn't know for sure what she was going to do. They were silent again.
    As he was saying good-bye to her, at the gateway leading up to her house, he said : "You're a strange one."
    She laughed briefly. "Maybe I am."
    As she turned away from him to go in home, he was overcome with a sense of loss.
    "Will you let me see you again?"
    She turned around, surprised. And then she surprised herself.
    "Yes," she said faintly.   
    "Are you sorry for me? Is that it?"
    "Go home," she said.   
    "I won't touch you anymore," he said. And then left.

(Michael Joe by William Cotter Murray was first published by Appleton: Century in 1965)


Clare Literature