by Dymphna Lonergan
The Lillypilly Tree*
The Lillipilly berries are falling on my new SUV’, said the next-door neighbour just after she opened the door. No ‘Hello’, or ‘How are you,’ or even ‘G’day’. But she was not in Ireland now. She was in Australia, South Australia. And she has been here for over forty years.
She followed the finger pointing at the huge tree in the garden and then towards the car in the driveway on the right. She saw the little red berries scattered around on the ground. ‘That’s called a ‘Ute’, she said to herself looking at the car. A new Australian English word she heard forty years ago. ‘And don’t forget ‘schooner’ and ‘midi’, said her husband from the grave. She smiled to herself remembering him.
A strange look came over the next-door neighbour’s face, and she came back to herself and listened intently to him. ‘Oh, I see the problem’, she said. ‘These berries are present for a short time throughout the year, but they don’t bother me’. ‘Well, they bother me when they fall on my new car’, Ben said sharply. The tone startled her. She stiffened.
She looked from the tree to the SUV and then to Ben’s anxious face. He was still young. Maybe in his thirties. The same age she was when she came to Australia with a husband and toddler who was now married with his own family. But the next-door neighbour was living alone, taking care of himself and the new SUV. The Australian accent broke in on her again talking about the cost of cutting back the branches ‘Okay’, she said. ‘Do that’. And she closed the door slowly.
Walking through the living room, she glanced at photographs from her childhood days that were on top of the piano. Some with her sisters and brothers, and some while alone, at school, in the garden, on the day of her First Communion. A white dress and a white veil and a pair of white shoes. She remembered that morning.
Two pairs of shoes, one white and one black patent. She loved the shiny black pair. ‘You can wear whatever you like’, said her Mum. Although she preferred the shiny black pair, she chose the white pair because she knew it was right. She knew it was not right to wear the black and white colours together on that day. Then she remembered the pair of red shiny boots she had bought with her first paycheck after leaving school. She wore them with a shiny white coat. The red and the white.
In the kitchen, she made herself a cup of tea and took it into the living room, and sat on the couch in front of the window. She looked out again at the red berries under the tree. Cute little balls among the white stones. She loved the white stones glistening in the sunlight all over the garden. That sight reminded her of the snow during her childhood. Footprints of the milkman who came early in the morning. Footprints of birds. Her own footprints and the snow crackling under her. Black and white. The simple life of the child. Unaware of the horrors to come.
The white and the red. The blood on the snow when she saw a road accident for the first time. She among a crowd on the other side of the road where a young boy was stretched out on the ground. A thick red stream flowing out of his head. ‘He’s a goner’, said a man beside her. She had never seen so much blood in her life. Even when she bumped into a boy when she ran out of the school toilets. Her face was bleeding close to her left eye. She was taken to hospital and had to get stitches on account of it. And the following year, a boy died after playing with the cord from the curtains in the schoolroom at Christmas, the cord around his neck. ‘In school!’, Mam shouted. ‘At Christmas!’ That story pierced her young heart. The white and the red and death. The death of youth.
‘Ah, Damien’, her father used to say on Christmas day. ‘Christmas wouldn’t be the same without you’. Damien was a next-door neighbour. He came to her house in the afternoon on Christmas Day every year for a glass of lemonade and chocolate sweets. His Mam didn’t have such things. They were a poor family. Dad dead as a result of a work accident. Damien was quiet and shy but he was comfortable with the cheerful man who welcomed him on Christmas Day. Damien only stayed a short time with them. When he had drunk the lemonade and eaten the sweets, he would say goodbye.
In his 21st year, Damien died in a motorcycle accident. That Christmas was not as usual. But to tell the truth nothing was as usual from then on. The children grew into teenagers. Dad grew older, quieter. The cancer as a small seed in his stomach.
She stood up and moved to the kitchen. She started washing the dishes. She looked out on the back garden. There was more space now since the gardener cut back the branches. The ‘bottlebrush’ had been struggling for the last few years but now there was room for it to grow properly. She loved the red flowers that grew on the ‘bottlebrush’ in the summer. It was so named because the shape of the flowers was similar to that little brush used to clean out bottles. But isn’t that a modern thing, a bottle brush? Don’t say that shrub doesn’t have another name. A Latin name, perhaps. Or it could be a native shrub and the native word was lost. She must search Google later.
The branches were bending in the wind. Branches. An Craoibhín Aoibhinn. That was the pen name of the writer Douglas Hyde. She thought of that man and the great work he had done for the revival of the language. The Irish language, ‘a small flowering branch’. She only had school Irish. Dublin school Irish that she brought with her to Australia. She kept it alive and grew it. And she also started a family branch in South Australia. A son and a daughter, a grandson and a granddaughter. And all connected to the big family in Ireland via Facebook, and Zoom. What would she do without Skype and Zoom especially now and the pandemic in the world?
She took a duster from the cupboard and went back to the living room. She took down the photographs from the top of the piano and she wiped all the dust off the piano. She then put the photos back in order starting with the grandmothers and the grandfathers. She paused for a moment to look at the childhood photo taken outside the back door. There were five children. Perhaps her Mam took the photo and perhaps she was carrying Éamonn, the youngest child, at the time because he was not in the photo. Nóirín, the oldest, was behind. In the first row, Paul, and then herself who was about four years old. Every child has an apple in their hand, except Paul who was eating one apple and another apple in his left hand. She has an apple in her hand and a sour face. She remembered why. She was annoyed with Paul because Mam had said to have only one apple to show to the camera. But Paul took no notice of her. She was always a good girl, but Paul was terribly naughty. All the children are smiling except for herself. Even Paul. You can see the smile in his eyes even though he has an apple in his mouth. All of their lives in front of them.
Now Noreen has Altzeimers. Over the years each child except for Mary spent periods of time in foreign countries. Michael in England at first and for the past twenty years in Spain. Paul spent ten years in Boston and when he returned to Ireland he moved to County Clare. The youngest child spent some years in England too. She in Australia.
She heard the birds piping and she looked out the window. There were two Piping Shrikes walking in the garden eating the red berries and others on the telegraph wire piping. No doubt spreading the news that there were good things to eat here. The Piping Shrike. White and black. Her childhood photos in black and white. And she thought about O’Driscoll from ‘The Host of the Air’, a poem she learned by heart in primary school, at the start of her life. ‘High up in the air, a piper piping away’. Now she hesars the same sound at the bottom of the world at the end of her life.
Would she see her native land again? Would she see snow falling again in her life. Thinking about the last paragraph of the famous short story ‘The Dead’, she imagined snow falling on her Australian garden. She imagined it falling on Dublin. On O’Connell’s statue. On the Liffey. On the breasts and hands of the angels still with bullet holes. Now it was falling on all the young boys, on Damien’s house, on all the Christmas days. On her father and mother’s grave. On the Craoibhín Aoibhinn and on the Irish language. On the living and on the dead.
Would she see snow falling again in her life? Thinking of the end of the famous short story ‘The Dead’, she imagined snow falling on her Australian garden. She imagined it falling on Dublin. On O’Connell’s statue. On the Liffey. On the breasts and hands of the angels still with bullet holes. Now it was falling on all the young boys, on Damien ‘s house, on all Christmas days. On the grave of her father and mother. On An Craobhín Aoibhinn and on the Irish language. On the living and the dead.
*This story was originally published in the Irish language in The Journal (WA) in September 2021 – available through https://irishheritage.com.au
Dymphna is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective and an occasional contributor. During Covid19, she has stepped up her Irish language learning and has taken to writing short stories as a means to improving her grammar! She can be contacted at email@example.com