Back to First Page

Palermo Nights

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

All the way from the railway station I had been dreading the moment when I would stand on the Kearney’s doorstep and ring the doorbell. Now, that moment was at hand. I stabbed at it nervously and waited. It was Moira’s mother who opened the door. I hadn’t met her before but Moira had always kept her picture by her bedside. She looked a great deal older than in the picture, drawn and haggard, pale skin and white-streaked hair dissolving into a loose grey tweed trouser-suit. A figure without shape or colour.

“I’m Neil, Mrs. Kearney,” I said very quietly, “I want to say how dreadfully sorry I am about… this terrible tragedy….”

“Come in, Neil,” she said in a monotone, “the others are in the garden.”

I followed her to the French windows at the back of the opulent sitting room, where she stopped and motioned me towards her ex-husband—lean, distinguished and dark-suited—who was sitting opposite the parish priest at the patio table in the garden. The priest’s lower lip moved unconsciously to shadow the words he was scrawling in the pages of a cheap school exercise book. His black suit was creased, his white clerical collar ringed at the top with a faint yellow sweat stain, and he was in need of a shave. On the table stood the remains of an open bottle of sherry and two glasses.

I touched Mr. Kearney’s hand and offered him my sympathy, before sitting down where I would not have to meet the eyes of either man. I remembered the only other time Kearney and I had spoken, when Moira had introduced me as “the boyfriend” and Kearney had said that her final examinations at Queen’s were a damn sight more important than boyfriends, and all that kind of thing could wait until she had her Degree in her hand and a decent teaching job lined up for September. That conversation seemed as remote and irrelevant now as the words of a Roman general before some unrecorded battle.

It was the priest who broke the silence. “It was good of you to come, Neil.” His words seemed formal and stilted.

“Good of me?” I shook my head. “This is… well, the biggest and the worst thing that’s happened in my whole life. I’ve never had anybody my own age die before… I still can’t really take it in. And to die like this…” The sight of the dishevelled priest reminded me that I had heard somewhere that suicides weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Was that to be Moira’s final indignity, I wondered?

“Neil,” he said with a ponderous intimacy, “many of us, when we start out as young adults, have more to cope with than at any other time in our lives. In a moment of weakness and despair, Moira did something that could not be undone. She was not herself in that moment. It was not the Moira that we all knew, and admired, and loved. That is not the Moira we are here to remember. We are here to celebrate the life of a wonderful, bright, talented, loving and loved young woman. A young woman whose soul now rests with God. Let us all be thankful that we had the chance to know her, and keep her in our hearts and our prayers until we are reunited with her in the life to come.” I realised from the phraseology that it was Moira’s funeral oration he was writing and he was trying it out on me. I adopted an expression of respect that I did not feel and nodded.

I noticed that Mr. Kearney’s jaw was shaking. His face remained totally expressionless. “God could have waited,” he mumbled tonelessly.

There was a pause. “I wish I had waited,” I heard myself say. “I mean… I left her. I let her down… just when she needed me most.”

I remembered how she would take my hand sometimes, completely without warning, and squeeze it slightly, and say: “I just wanted to make sure you were there.” Like a child looking for reassurance. But I wasn’t there. Not when it mattered. A stupid, pointless lovers’ tiff. I couldn’t even remember what started it off now.

“No need to feel guilty about that,” Kearney put in more forcefully, “I told her she needed time to revise. I told her it would be better if you went away for a while, with the finals in only a couple of weeks. You did the right thing, Neil.”

The glib, hollow words made me feel even worse than before.

“Neil,” said the priest, “when something like this happens, everybody starts blaming themselves and sometimes everyone else as well. We all try to think of what we might have done differently. But the fact is, we are all decent, loving people. We all do what we believe is for the best, especially where our loved-ones are concerned. We can’t foresee the future. We’re never in possession of all the facts. Only God knows everything. The rest of us do what we believe is right, according to our lights. There is nothing we can do that will remove tragedy from the world. We simply aren’t that powerful, Neil.”

“I saw the letter you wrote to her.” It was Moira’s mother speaking from the sitting-room behind me. I had forgotten she was there and her voice made me start. “You said you would come down to the graduation if she got a First, but I would come whatever she got. You implied that unless she got a First you weren’t coming to the ceremony. How do you think that made her feel?”

“It was a joke," Kearney protested. "A sort of in joke we had between us. Everyone knew she was going to get a First. It was just my way of encouraging her. I didn’t mean it seriously.”

“It was your way of bullying her. Of putting pressure on her. I think it was despicable.”

“So it’s all my fault now, is it? Where have you been for the last seven years of her life then? I haven’t seen you do very much for her, by remote control from America.”

The priest raised his hand to stop the exchange. “I think we should all have a cup of tea,” he said firmly, “it’s a great thing when people are under stress. And wouldn’t it be a miracle if we weren’t under stress today?” I heard her leave for the kitchen.

“It wasn’t because of your letter that I went away,” I began to say, then regretted having opened up the topic. The two men looked at me and there was little I could do but continue. “We were already going through a … a sort of a difficult period.” As I said the words that awful vindictive feeling welled up in me again: the need to punish, to wound, to make her feel as bad as I did. Just for a fraction of a second, then the guilt and the shame flooded back.

“What couple hasn’t gone through a difficult period at one time or another?” the priest asked genially.

“Moira had very advanced ideas,” I tried to explain, knowing that I was putting it extremely badly, not knowing why I was saying it. Maybe because I needed to justify myself, maybe because I just needed to talk. “She was a reader—a thinker. And a song writer of course. Very… political. She had ideas about… how people ought to relate to one another… that I found difficult to understand. Difficult to get along with. Sorry, this isn’t the time or the place to talk about it.”

“I’m not a fool, Neil,” her father said coldly, “I knew how she behaved when she was away from home. Who do you think sorted out the pregnancy when she was fifteen? Sorry, Father, this is family talk. I shouldn’t really be discussing it with you here.”

“Priests aren’t easy to shock, Mr. Kearney. There isn’t much of human nature that’s hidden from us. And needless to say nothing you tell me will go any further. If it helps, I’d like you to tell me exactly what’s on your mind, unexpurgated.” Kearney said no more.

For some reason I still wanted to talk. “Moira,” I found myself whispering, “was sort of wild and free. That was what made people love her. She couldn’t be contained, she wouldn’t follow rules. She seemed to want… physical closeness, with quite a lot of people. Some people called her unpleasant names because they were scared of her, because she wasn’t like them. It wasn’t so much sex she wanted, but tenderness. Affection. She hated to sleep alone… Sorry, I’ve said too much.”

“There are very many worse sins than fornication,” mused the priest. “Remember what Christ said to the woman taken in adultery? Go in peace and sin no more. That was all. Compare that to how he treated the money-changers in the temple.”

The clinking of the tray with the tea things silenced our conversation. The former Mrs. Kearney placed it carefully on the teak garden table and took a seat. She started to fill the cups. “Is Lindy coming over from Edinburgh?” she asked in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Lindy phoned to say she was on her way.” Kearney confirmed, “But we only managed to get in touch with her last night. I think she’ll miss the funeral. I wouldn’t expect her much before nightfall. It’s a long way.”

“It seems to me everybody in this family is a long way from everybody else,” she mumbled. Right on cue, the front doorbell sounded.

“It couldn’t be Lindy. It’s far too early,” Kearney pronounced.

“May I answer it?” I suggested, and Kearney nodded.

I hurried past Mrs. Kearney and opened the door. It was Moira’s singing friend Lorraine. She wore a long yellow floral pattern skirt with a low-cut black top, and she was carrying her guitar in its scuffed blue fabric case. She didn’t look like somebody dressed for a funeral to me. I nodded and ushered her through to the back garden. I told them who she was but it was obvious that none of them knew her.

“This is Moira’s friend that she met at the Palermo Restaurant,” I tried to explain as she offered her condolences. “They both sing there some nights, to make a little bit of money.”

“Money?” she smiled, “I’m afraid you don’t make money singing at the Palermo Restaurant. For two forty-minute sets, old Fabio will let you order any meal on the menu, and he’ll throw in a half bottle of house wine. Paying money is against his religion, he says.”

“Oh, I never knew that. So that was what she meant by her ‘Palermo nights’.”

“We’ve both had a lot of Palermo nights,” Lorraine confirmed.

“My daughter never went hungry,” Kearney snapped, “she never wanted for anything in her life.”

Mrs. Kearney had followed Lorraine into the garden and now she offered her a chair and sat next to her. Curiously they seemed to gravitate to one another, like the shy ones at a dinner-party. “No, of course not, Mr. Kearney,” Lorraine tried to explain as she balanced her guitar against the table, “but towards the end of the term, around about now, we all run short. It isn’t so easy to budget. There are always things you want more than food. Clothes, nights out, little treats like a show or a film…”

“That…” Kearney interrupted angrily, then regained control and started again, “That isn’t what Moira went to Queen’s for…” he tailed off, embarrassed by the pettiness of his reaction. For a moment we were all silent.

“No, John,” Moira’s mother put in with quiet contempt, “what she went to Queen’s for was to please you. To live out your fantasies and boost your ego. You might have liked it better if she’d become a nun too. Poverty, obedience, chastity. That would have suited you well, wouldn’t it?”

Lorraine was quick to intervene, ignoring the bitterness that was building up. “Doing a gig at the Palermo isn’t so bad,” she explained, “if you’ve been living on cheese sandwiches and black coffee for a week it’s pretty good to tuck in to veal cutlets or seafood risotto with mascarpone and peaches for afters. The sad thing was though, Moira didn’t really like Italian food. She preferred Chinese.”

“I was the one who sent Moira for piano lessons,” her mother explained with a hint of pride. “She always loved music. She could play anything by ear on the piano. Far better than I ever was.” Kearney grunted, as though to imply that that was no great achievement.

“If it’s okay,” said Lorraine, smiling faintly at the priest, “I would like to sing one of Moira’s songs at the service.”

“What!” Kearney almost exploded. “You want to sing songs at my daughter’s funeral Mass? Do you think it’s some kind of California beach party we’re having here?”

“I think that would be a beautiful idea,” her mother said quietly. “Don’t you, Father?”

The priest seemed to brighten up. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had young singers and musicians offering their gifts as part of our holy worship. I would be very pleased for Lorraine to sing… if it’s what the family wants.”

The Kearneys stared at each other across the table. “That is what we want,” Moira’s mother said firmly. Kearney said nothing.

“Actually, the one I thought of doing is the one she wrote about the Palermo. After she stopped performing there.”

“I didn’t know she had stopped. Did she fall out with Fabio?”

“In a way. He asked her to stop doing her own songs. Stick to stuff from the Top Twenty. She was very hurt. It wasn’t even true, or fair. People loved her songs. That was what they came for. They came to hear Moira, not a poor man’s Dusty Springfield or Mary Hopkin. She cried about what he said, and she never went there again. She didn’t sing that night and she didn’t eat either.”

I saw a tear come to her mother’s eye and tried to stop myself from reacting in the same way. What really hurt was that Moira hadn’t told me. I thought I had been closer to her than anybody else in the whole world. Maybe I had been fooling myself. My thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. “I’ll get it,” I offered, suppressing a slight tremble in my voice.

When I saw who it was we exchanged a few words in terse whispers. “What are you doing here, Ernie?”

“The same as you. I’m here for the funeral. I was her best friend.”

“Is that what you thought?” I felt an angry impulse at hearing his words and couldn’t restrain myself from lashing out.

“I helped her with her assignments. I helped her a lot. I was nearly her personal tutor.”

“You’re wrong. You didn’t help her. You took away the last few shreds of confidence that she had. You made her feel stupid.”

“How could I do that? We were in the same year. I was just another student. How could I make her feel stupid?”

“Think about it. She was brought up in this little hick town in Co. Antrim. Her father taught maths in the local Secondary School. She was his star pupil. He crammed maths into her day and night, convinced her she was just one notch down from Einstein. Then she went to Queen’s and met people with real mathematical talent. People like you. People she couldn’t match in a million years. Suddenly she wasn’t the star pupil any longer, and you wouldn’t let her forget it. She was embarrassed at how much better you were than her. It depressed her. Don’t you understand that? You make people uncomfortable. Being a State Exhibition student is fine, but you don’t need to ram it down people’s throats all the time.” I ended my rant and was silent. I knew, but would never have admitted, that a lot of the antagonism I felt towards Ernie was plain old fashioned jealousy. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of the way she had paid for her “private lessons”. We had never spoken of it but everybody knew perfectly well. He was one of the parts of Moira’s life that I didn’t want to think about. As soon as I had spoken I felt ashamed. “Sorry, I don’t know why I said all that. I’m upset. Forget it, Ernie, will you?” I felt stupid myself, and ridiculous.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said thoughtfully, “I know I come across as a bit arrogant. I’m not much good at personal relations. Sometimes I’m a bit impatient when people can’t see things in mathematics. I don’t mean to be like that. It’s just the way it comes out.”

“Who is it, Neil?” Moira’s mother called from the back garden.

“It’s Ernie,” I called back, “one of Moira’s friends. The best maths student Queen’s has had in the last ten years.” Suddenly I realised I was doing it myself. “I mean, he was her best friend at the University.” Without thinking about it I clasped his hand and led him out to the group in the garden. I wondered if Moira had ever clasped that same hand and said: “I just wanted to make sure that you were there”. He raised his other hand to protect his eyes and scowled from one face to the next. They looked up and took in his shock of white hair, pallid skin and the faint pinkness of his eyes. “Ernie is an albino,” I explained, “like a laboratory rat.”

“Ernie Carradine,” Kearney said with awe, “I read about you in the Belfast Telegraph. I’m very honoured to meet you.”

“I wish it could have been in happier circumstances,” said Ernie with uncharacteristic charm.

“I believe you were helping her with her University work,” Kearney continued, “I want you to know that I’m very grateful for everything you did. Both she and I believed that she was capable of a First.”

A serious look spread across Ernie’s face and I could see that his razor-sharp mind had assessed the situation in a heartbeat. “A First? Goodness I should hope so! She was a long way beyond first degree level. She and I discussed mathematics together from a basis of complete equality.”

He squeezed my hand as he said it, and the unconscious irony of the gesture stopped my breath. Kearney noticed nothing. The shadow of a smile spread across his face. “Is that so? From a basis of complete equality…?

“Absolutely. I am about to submit our first joint paper to the ‘Journal of Pure Mathematics’. It’s so incredibly sad that she won’t be here to enjoy her share of the credit.”

Her father looked incredulous. “My daughter worked with you on a paper to be published in the ‘Journal of Pure Mathematics’…?”

“I hope it will be her everlasting monument. With your permission, I intend to continue her work myself. I believe that it will constitute a very substantial contribution to the field in due course. The first paper will be entitled ‘The Kearney-Carradine Reduction of N-Dimensional Non-Euclidian Vector Space’.”

Kearney almost purred. “’The Kearney-Carradine Reduction…’” He stood up and walked over to Ernie and took the hand that I was holding. “Why couldn’t I have had more faith in her?” he mumbled, speaking entirely to himself, “why couldn’t I have trusted her and allowed her to do things in her own way?”

“What a wonderful life your daughter lived,” said the priest magnanimously, “how extraordinarily talented she was. Every human life has many more facets than any one of us can ever see. I feel I know a great deal more about Moira now.” He put away the notes he had been writing for the funeral oration, having decided no doubt that he had as much as he needed. “But of course only the Almighty can ever know it all. Maybe that’s just as well, wouldn’t you say?”

We all looked at him, aware of a harsh edge to what he had said. “I’m sorry, I wouldn’t want you to take that the wrong way. To be perfectly honest, I was thinking about myself when I said it.” For the first time I thought I caught a hint of genuine emotion in his voice. For a few moments each of us was alone with our thoughts.

“When I was a little boy,” he said in a totally different tone, speaking as himself and not as a priest any more, “my father had a solid glass paperweight in the shape of a cube that he kept on his desk. Inside it you could see a tiny model of a cottage with a garden, and trees and fields around it. But when you looked more closely you began to realise that the landscape you saw through each face of the cube was slightly different. Through one face it was winter and the trees were bare and there was a kind of a faint icing of snow on everything. Through another face the trees were in blossom and there were yellow daffodils in the lawn. It was autumn in another face, with fallen leaves, and then in another face it was full summer and the garden and the hanging baskets were a blaze of colour. All the little scenes were equally perfect, equally convincing. I never found out what was really inside the cube. That was how I used to think of God when I was a little boy. He was the only one who knew what was really in there.”

He drew a deep breath and seemed to come out of his reverie. He glanced at his watch. “I need to go back and clean up,” he muttered, and I realised for the first time that he had been at the Kearney house all night. “Do you think I could ask you for a small favour, Lorraine?” he asked, “Would it be possible for you to let me hear Moira’s song now, so that I have an idea of what to expect… and of course the length, and so on?”

I couldn’t seem to get my attention away from my own right hand. It seemed unaccountably empty, as though I had allowed something very important to slip out of my grasp.

Lorraine nodded, took the guitar out of its fabric case and pulled her seat back to make more room. It took her a few moments to satisfy herself with the tuning. “This is called ‘Palermo Nights’,” she said quietly.

We all have to sing for our supper
We all have to settle the bill
We all have to take what life offers
If you don’t then someone else will.

It isn’t a question of planning
It isn’t a matter of choice
You sell what it is you’ve been given
Your body, your mind or your voice.

The doctor, the teacher, the soldier,
The reader of palms at the fair
The woman who empties the bed-pans
The wife of the fat millionaire

The family that works in the rice fields
The sentries who stand in the rain
The temptress who waits in the shadows
The man with the suit on the train

We all make a bargain with someone
We each have our stall and our wares
And you’ve got to be willing to haggle
And make the full round of the fairs

And nothing is given for nothing
And even the air isn’t free
And love is more costly than loathing
And nobody’s bidding for me.