Priory Road


When they finished, Barry got up and went to the loo. Grace wanted to get to sleep before the mice began gnawing on the floorboards. He came back, laying her coat on the thin blanket, as the electric fire was long off.  Turning on her side to face the wall, she nestled into the space between him and wall. She closed her eyes to imagine the scene envisioned nightly to bring on sleep. The simple white gown, the small bouquet, flowers in her hair…. in a lush green garden, back in Galway somewhere. She slowly walked towards him, and musicians began to play. But this was the important bit – Which song would be played as she walked towards him? She thought of one followed by another, trying each on to see if it fit,  finally drifting off to sleep.

It was the next morning when she realized she had no clothes suitable for a typist. Her faded blue jeans lay on the floor by the mattress, and over the chair hung the wrap-around denim skirt and white peasant blouse she had been wearing since the summer began. She quietly took out the suitcase that she had stashed in the wardrobe when she and Barry had moved into the flat with Jackie and Christy. She found the short black skirt from her days as a waitress at the GBC in Galway and a pink knit top. She thought to rummage around some more to find a bra, but she didn’t have time for  that. She slipped on the skirt and top and the dusty brown leather pumps from the very bottom of the wardrobe before going down the stairs and out the door onto Priory Road, heading for the Kilburn High Road.

Grace was doing this for the money, but that was not the only reason. This life was well enough for the lads. Each week they went down to the labour exchange and signed on for the dole. That money coupled with their pub gigs on the weekend covered their portion of the rent, a bit of a meal each day, fags, and pints.  If they were short, they busked. The other musicians who visited the flat, friends from Galway, supplied a regular flow of paki-black for the long summer evenings. But she was an American in London on a tourist visa, which did not allow work.  But something in her wanted to work. Sitting around the flat all day was starting to get on her tits.

Last week Barry had this idea. His sister, Deirdre, was in Boston that summer, so Grace could use Deirdre’s identification number to work in London.  She could pretend to be Irish; the lads agreed she had the accent down well enough. The next afternoon, at the temp agency on Kilburn High Road, she told the woman that her name was Deirdre Kelly, from County Galway, and that she  could type – all lies. She had taken a typing course in high school, but barely passed. However, she looked the temp lady in the eye and said it like she believed it.  The lady had hardly asked any questions at all, and told her  to report the following Monday morning to the London Electricity Board, at the end of the Kilburn High Road, to be a typist in the typing pool. It had been so easy.

But the women at the London Electricity Board were wearing those new longer skirts with high platform shoes. Her skirt was too short and her breasts were swinging around under the pink knit. The low brown leather pumps were pitiful. People were looking at her and she realized that she should have at least taken the time for a bra.  An older woman escorted her up a staircase to a desk with a typewriter. She sat down as quickly as she could, feeling not so noticeable sitting. She was also saying as little as possible, in fear of a mistake in the accent. Grace sat there looking around for a few minutes when a woman about her age arrived and introduced herself as Sally. Sally was English.

“Has anyone explained how things work ‘round here?”

“No,  not yet.” I said.

“Just like this lot! Well, it isn’t so complicated, Deirdre. Here, I’ll show you.”

Sally showed Grace her in-basket and out-basket, and next to it, Sally’s. She explained that the supervisor usually left them alone, but she would come around to check the out-baskets.

“To make sure we’re not slacking off, Deirdre,” said Sally, with a wink.

There were several hand-written letters about credits to electricity bills that were in her basket. Grace got to work, pecking around and making reasonable progress. When finishing a letter, she put the writer’s initials in caps, and her own in lower case letters. But she kept putting go instead of dk. Each time, she corrected this with white out, but the supervisor noticed when she was looking over her work. Grace saw her from the corner of  her eye standing near her out basket holding the corrected letters in her hand and squinting over at her. Grace had kept her eyes glued to her typewriter.

Sally liked talking. Just married, she and her husband were fixing up their new flat – cleaning, painting, curtains – all that stuff. Sally went on about this most of the morning, as if Grace were part of this world.  Grace thought of the pints the lads and she had consumed Friday night followed by joints smoked back at the flat while Sally and her husband were painting their new sitting room.  She doubted Sally had ever had a night like that. But Grace also wondered  if she would ever have what Sally had; a flat with just Barry and her in it, and the two of them going out to work every day and a meal every night followed by a quiet evening. Would Grace ever live in a Sally’s world?  Would she ever want to? It was strange, because lately sometimes she thought she did; other times, she did not at all. There would be no joints passed around a circle of friends, no listening to Jackie till 2 or 3 in the morning on his guitar singing his songs of home. Home. It had felt right to Grace to call Galway home, having lived there with Barry for the past two years.

At 1230, Sally prepared to leave for lunch, asking if she wanted to come along. Grace had no money, so she said no, lying about meeting a friend for lunch. Sally explained she would also go to the butcher for some meat for tea that evening, so maybe she would see her on the High Street. Grace walked the busy High Street passing the hour, hoping not to bump into Sally. Her lie about lunch would be obvious, and she did not want to face lying to Sally because Sally was being kind. Grace had felt terribly awkward that morning- her clothes were not right, her hesitations to speak, her errors on the letters. But Sally’s friendly chatter had made her comfortable in some way.

Sally was the only English girl Grace had ever met. She only knew the lads in London, who were Irish, and the Australians who lived in the basement apartment. Sally was also the only person she knew who had a hot meal every evening. At the flat they drank pots and pots of tea, and maybe a piece of toast. One morning Grace went into the kitchen to make tea, stamping her foot at the doorway in order to chase any mice away. She put the water on to boil, and to the fridge for milk, but the only thing in the fridge was some paki black. But Grace badly  wanted milk for her tea. Sally probably always had milk for the tea.

Grace  wore the black skirt every day that week, alternating between the pink top and a white  peasant blouse that badly needed a wash. She always wore the brown leather pumps, as the only other shoes she had were summer sandals.

It was on Thursday that the supervisor entered the typing-pool room with another woman.

“I told the girls downstairs that we had an Irish girl from the temp agency, and Imelda wanted to come up and welcome you.”

“Hallo, how are ye?” she said. Grace knew from her accent that she was not only from Ireland, but from the west.  Oh shit, she thought.

She introduced herself as Imelda from Cloonboo, a village Grace was vaguely familiar with as it was about twenty miles from Galway, where she had been living with Barry.

“I’m from Tuam” Grace said, trying to say the name of the town where Barry’s family was from just right. There was the way people from Galway said Tuam, but another way that people from Tuam said Tuam. Grace was confident that she got it right, as Imelda immediately started asking her did she know this one or that one, as she said that she knew some people herself from Tuam.

“No, but that name sounds familiar.” Grace  realized that she was saying that too many times, but
pressed on  as best she could,  ignoring Imelda’s annoying squeals of amazement when Grace did not know  the  people on her list of  the very important people in Tuam.

“You’re saying now that you don’t know the Mulligans? Ah, sure, you MUST know of the Mulligans. Jeanie Mack, your not knowing the Mulligans and you from Tuam and all. Well, then, so, do you know the Lalley’s? There are three brothers – Mike, Peter, and Phillip. You know them, now, for sure.”

“Now, you know, I might know them.”

“You might? You might, she says.” And with that, she looked over at the supervisor.

Each question put to Grace was accompanied by knowing glances towards the supervisor that clearly affirmed their conviction that she was lying. Then the supervisor asked Grace where she had bought her shoes.

“They’re American shoes, aren’t they, Deirdre?”

Grace knew they knew, but she went on.
“My sister brought them back to me when she was working in the states last summer.”

“So you’re saying she brought ye shoes, did she? Shoes? From America? That’s odd.”

“Yes, shoes. These shoes. That’s what I ‘m sayin’.”

“And which sister would that be, now, in the Kelly’s of  Tuam?”

“Hillary. Hillary Kelly.” Grace gave the name of  Barry’s younger sister – a girl of fifteen who would never have even been  in the states.  It was just a matter of days before Imelda would sort this out and be back with more of her bloody questions.

Finally, they left.  Grace picked up the next letter in her box, pretending to read it, but putting it down as her hand was shaking. She prayed for the moment to pass. Sally said nothing, and began to type. Thursday could not end soon enough. This pretending to be Irish was getting complicated.

On her walk home, Grace knew she could do the accent well enough, but it was the shoes giving her away.  She had no money for shoes. And bloody long skirts! She needed the money for her portion of the rent and some food.  But these troubles were forgotten when she turned onto Priory Road, for on the roof smoking a joint and basking in the light of the long summer evening were the three lads. They laughed looking down at her, stoned out of their minds.
“Hallo, Gracie.”
“What are ye doin’ up there?”
“Ah, Jack All, Gracie.  Jack All.”

At least she was Gracie again. When she entered the flat, she smelled something cooking. The four mattresses along the walls of the lounge were empty, except for Mary in the far corner, smoking a cigarette.

“Hallo, Gracie.”
“Mary. What do I smell?”
“That would be a chicken, Gracie. Roisinne found a five pound note on the sidewalk and didn’t she go to the butcher and buy a chicken and spuds and veg – can you believe it? She’s been cooking for hours. We are dying of the hunger just smelling it.”

Grace slipped the skirt off and was pulling up her jeans when Barry came into the lounge.

“Just me.  How was the day, so?”

Grace told him about the girl from Cloonboo and the shoes as she zipped her jeans.
“Ah, fuck’em, Gracie. Just fuck’em.”

They both laid down on their mattress and shared a cigarette.
“I’ m nearly out of fags.” Barry said, thumbing through his copy of Melody Maker.
“We’ll go get some after the dinner, ok?”
“OK, so.” Barry began to read an article. Smelling the chicken, Grace’s thoughts turned to Roisinne, who seemed a good bit older than her, heavy-set, and a dominant woman.
“What is it, Gracie?”
“Tell me again, how did Roisinne come here? I cannot remember how she came to be here.”
Mary recalled her own arrival about a month ago with her friend who needed abortion. They stayed at the flat, but the friend went home after the procedure. Mary decided to stay a while longer. Mary had run into Roisinne, who she knew from Mayo, one Saturday in Ladbroke Grove, and invited her to come by the flat that evening. And Roisinne did.
“And, sure, she never left.” Barry concluded, with a pull on his fag.. “Ugly old women appearing out of nowhere. Telling us all what to do. Fuckin’ Yeats would like that well enough” added Barry,  putting down the Melody Maker and walking over to the record player. He began to leaf through the albums.

This story was typical for Priory Road.  Jackie and Christy were the first in the flat.  Barry and Grace joined them, but the number of visitors rose and fell under the steady flow of friends coming through. Some had just arrived to London, others were on their way home after having found some work somewhere. Some stayed a night, others a week at most, but Roisinne never left. Mary was Jackie’s sister, so her staying on was different.  But Roisinne had no such connection.

Grace thought that she had no such connection either, just that she was with Barry. She had left the states after high school to be with Barry whom she had met when the band he’d joined was touring the states. With his help, she was able to find work as a waitress with no visa worries. But then Barry decided to quit the band and go to London for a spell and Grace went with him. She did not want to leave Galway, a place she had grown to love, but the thought of being in Galway without Barry seemed wrong . He was her connection there as well. 

Jackie came into the lounge from the roof, swearing under his breath about Roisinne. Christy was quick to reply. “She was good enough to get us a chicken, Jackie. She could have had herself several chicken dinners out on the High Road for a fiver and none of us would be the wiser.”

“Ah, you are right, Michael. But there are other things she could do with a fiver. Like buying herself a ticket back home. She’s a bossy old biddy.”

Jackie did not like this woman who had taken to bossing the lads about the flat. But if Jackie disliked her so much, why wouldn’t he just tell her to leave? It seemed the lads could not do that for some reason that was not clear to Grace. The others who had come thru the flat, for a night or two and then looking like they might linger, were let known in one way or another,  that it was time for them to leave.  But Roisinne had ignored these signals and now seemed to be sending a signal of her own with this chicken dinner.

Later that evening, they were full from dinner and sitting around the quiet flat. There was no paki black about, so a quiet night was in order. Grace was sitting against the wall on her mattress, waiting on Barry to return from the shop with fags. Roisinne, across the room on her mattress, was poking around in her cloth bag. She pulled out a tin whistle. Grace had no idea she had a tin whistle, never mind play it. It was odd to Grace that Roisinne would have held out on them like that, never playing for them.

But then Roisinne began to play A Soldier’s Song, a song Grace had only heard back in the states among Irish Americans. But here was Roisinne playing it on her tin whistle -   after having fed them a chicken dinner that she paid for with a fiver found on the street.  Grace sensed that she was supposed to be paying attention, that something was going down here as the sound of Roisinne’s tin whistle filled the room.

She looked around the room to see the reaction of the others. They were all watching Roisinne,  keeping the silence, intent on listening. The room was so still, the melody seeming to encircle them. The notes came from her pipe, so clear and so steady. It was as if they were all under some sort of a spell. They were all of it. Each was resting at the same time on the same thought of home. To Grace, it seemed that the song was touching  the same spot in each one of them, people so far away from the place they loved so dearly.

And it was in the watching of this that Grace realized she was not of that place, a place that she loved so dearly. A place she thought was home. This was a stark realization. Pretending to be Irish was getting complicated.


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