Finn Valley Festival Queen 1985- Mauk Donnabhain

Patrick lit up a cigarette and looked at his phone again, as he stood outside the theatre in Vauxhall, sheltering in the doorway of the service entrance, pulling his jacket tighter around his shoulders.

It was always the same with his mother’s emails. She wrote emails the way people had written letters in the old days. All the proper greetings and signatures. What would once have been pages of his mother’s neat hand-written script, had become a very long piece of text that kept him scrolling down the screen.

‘I suppose it’s something that she’s managed to get onto email at all!’

In her move to a digital format, his mother had compromised nothing in terms of length or subject and, just like the letters she’d written him, when he’d first moved to London, her emails were at least ninety per cent local gossip about friends and neighbours he hardly remembered, back home in Donegal. It was the other ten per cent that mattered to him most. The throwaway comments and casual asides that let him know that his mother was fine. The confirmation that she 1 missed him and the reassurance that she still said a prayer for him every day. This time it was different. He wanted to read through the email a second time, so he could take in all of the details. The news about his cousin Mary-Lou had come as a shock to him and he’d been distracted the whole evening. He hoped it hadn’t affected his performance, as his mind had been a million miles away. But the applause at the end of the show had been heartfelt and, if he was being completely honest, he could do the show with his eyes closed at this stage.

As he dropped the cigarette butt to the ground, his eyes scanned the text and the last puff of smoke he exhaled was whisked off into the cold evening air.

‘Found dead in her flat in Boston.’

‘All alone.’

‘Not seen outside the door for three days.’

‘Police called.’

‘Knocked down the front door.’

The tears welled in his eyes and he took a deep breath. No one really knew how close he’d been to Mary-Lou. They’d shared a bond that only he and Mary-Lou knew about. In many ways, she’d made him the person he was. It was a long time ago. Back in Ireland. The glorious summer evening had faded to a chilly dusk. Being so far north, it stayed bright until almost eleven and Patrick had been waiting for hours, along with all of the other kids on the estate, for Mary-Lou to appear. As they sat at the top of the lane, their conversations had been interrupted several times by false alarms. Their eyes scanned the horizon for signs that she was on her way home.

Suddenly a car had appeared at the bottom of the lane. It was a flashy one, with an open-roof, driven by the Mayor’s son. A surge of excitement ran through the crowd 2 and they immediately got to their feet, straining their eyes to see if it was really her. The people at the bottom of the lane filled in behind the car and a cheer went up, as the home-made sound system in the car blasted out the words of her theme song.

I said ‘Hello’ Mary-Lou. Goodbye heart.

As the car moved slowly up the hill, the crowds up and down the lane joined in with the singing.

Sweet Mary-Lou, we’re so in love with you.

Being smaller than the others, Patrick had pushed his way to the front. He’d felt his heart racing, as the car drew near and he could clearly see her. So beautiful in her tiara and sequined dress. Her sash read, Finn Valley Festival Queen 1985.

Mary-Lou had waved and smiled sweetly, her right hand nervously checking that the tiara was still in place.

‘Mary-Lou! Mary-Lou!’

He’d got her attention at last and she’d looked right at him. She’d waved excitedly, singling him out, so that everyone could see she was waving and smiling at him. Patrick had never been so proud of anyone or anything in his entire life. He lit up another cigarette, as he returned to his mother’s email.

‘Remains returning on Saturday.’

‘Funeral at the church in Murlog.’

‘Mass cards sent all the way from America.’

Mary-Lou running away to America had caused quite a stir in the village. It had been the beginning of the end for her and people had muttered disapprovingly.

‘A young girl running off with a man like that! And him already married!’

The Mayor’s son had been completely smitten by her and Patrick could understand why. At sixteen, she’d been one of the youngest contestants in the beauty 3 pageant. She’d been barely old enough to enter the competition and she was a woman long before the village was ready for her. The months she’d spent in New York had allowed the resentment to grow. Allowed the jealousy and sense of betrayal to fester. By the time she returned people had stopped thinking about her as a Festival Queen and started thinking about her as something else.

Patrick had been as shocked as anyone when she left. He’d written a letter to her, on cheap scented paper that he’d stolen from his sister. He told Mary-Lou about his school. About life in the village. All the trivial things. And she’d written back to him a few months later. The gaudy American stamp and postmark had embarrassed him, so he’d hidden her reply, reading it over and over later, in the privacy of his bedroom. The skyscrapers of Manhattan. Parties on the Fourth of July. Hot summer days on Coney Island, the ice cream melting in your hands. It was another world. A world he also wanted to run away to, as soon as he was old enough to leave.

Mary-Lou had looked broken when she returned to the village a year later. The Mayor’s son had preceded her by several months, so they’d already heard his version of events. And she’d looked different somehow. More ordinary, despite her American clothes and the noticeable twang in her accent. The village turned its back on her, but Patrick had loved her more than ever.

A few years passed before Mary-Lou left for America again. A nannying job in Boston this time. Patrick had been in the cocoon of his teenage years by then. A butterfly waiting to emerge from its chrysalis. He’d been crippled by shyness and hadn’t dared to speak to her, hadn’t dared to get to know her better. He regretted that now, more than ever. He put out his second cigarette and stepped back into the warmth of the theatre. As he made his way along the corridor, the other performers greeted him and Lucille gave him one of her broadest smiles.

‘That was a great show tonight. Well done!’

The rouge hid Patrick’s blushing, but he smiled gently and mouthed the words,

‘Thank you!’

He opened the door to his dressing room and hung his jacket on a hook on the back of the door. It wasn’t the most glamorous dressing room in the world, but at least he had it all to himself. He needed a private space more, as he got older. He removed his wig and false eyelashes, then went through his handbag to find the baby wipes, so he could remove the make-up from his face. As the first wipe coloured red, he stopped for a minute and stared at himself in the mirror, the sequins in his dress reflecting the light and sparkling in a way that always gave him a bit of a thrill.

‘Poor Mary-Lou!’

He looked for signs of her in his own face. Was she there somewhere behind the mirror staring back at him?

He remembered the last time he’d seen her, all those years before. The cuts on her face had almost healed by then, which was just as well, as she was about to leave for her new job in Boston. The scars would be visible for years to come, a reminder of the beating she’d taken from some of the local girls. Haunted by their words.

‘She thinks she is somebody.’

Patrick had fought his own battles down the years. Wrestled with other people’s fear and prejudice. Their attempts to drag him down. He felt much closer to Mary-Lou than his mother or anyone else in the village would ever understand.

And he knew more than anyone, that she was somebody.

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