Author’s Note: “ ‘Will You Marry Me?’ tells the story of a young Irish girl who receives a proposal of marriage from a drunken old man on a village Sunday morning. Thus begins her misguided search for power. Everywhere around her, the failing native language, the harsh unforgiving landscape, the hardened critical people, all reek of power lost. An historically colonized lot now warped into some terrible shadow. In such a hostile setting, any weakness laid bare could mark you for life. Nicknames the most lethal of sentences. Your fate reduced to an epithet. No escape.”
Will You Marry Me ?
WHEN I WAS NINE, a man asked me to marry him.
An old man from our village—in reality, no more than mid-fifties—who wobbled past me on his way home from Sunday pub. It was early May, a summer freshness in the air that made all things seem possible.
Perched like a cat, I sat on a neighbor’s sill, soaking in some
The old man startled when he saw me, my legs stretched the short width of the window ledge, my back to its narrow indent. From a distance, I blended with the wall’s facade. Some trick picked up from hours of hide-and-seek. How I reveled when my younger brother jogged past a cottage doorway, or a hole in a turf reek, and I watched as though a sod, a stone, a doorjamb.
The old man cocked his head to one side, then the other, as though to retrieve a hard spelling. Even at a distance, he reeked of old-man pong: stout, sweat, staleness, fag-smoke. Sometimes, Mamma gave a lift to old men thumbing home from town in a downpour. They sat into the back seat with their litany of Thank you, Mrs., thank you, and that sickening whiff. Some manky jumper left on a cowshed peg too long and pulled on without washing.
Right where the old man stood, the sun spliced the lane to half-shadow, half-light.
Behind him, an old shop that hadn’t seen paint since the forties shaded him in its two-story decrepitude. Once, in the decades after Irish Independence, it had been the center of commerce, so clean you could eat off the floors. Or so Dadda told us. Now, rats trapped flies and bluebottles in the shop’s filthy window. Behind them, stacks upon stacks of unopened merchandise, clogged walls and floor space. Fresh meat, delivered weekly in shanks of pink and marbled white, swung from hooks in the ceiling.
Business as usual, each carcass boasted, just like the bachelor owner.
Rumor had it he’d been a genius. Could have done anything with his private schooling. Instead, his mother had coaxed him home till she died, and between her love of scrubbing, broadly known, and his big ambitions, barely known, the decades since had left only one clean thing—his jerseys—a new one every month or so. Bright pinks and daffodil yellows in a sea of tweed and gray.
As a child, I watched from the shop corner as old men and women shuffled in for their week’s messages, pointed to bread and milk and eggs, sitting uncovered in the bold open. As though all anyone could still see was what had once been true. No one dared take their business elsewhere lest they too get trapped in the profit and loss of reputation, traded and sold in the grocer’s nightly kitchen.
There the drunk man stood, one foot in the shadows of the old shop, the other in the sunlight. Even at half past two in the afternoon, any fool could see he was dole-night-drunk.
This Sunday routine was not at all uncommon. Every Sunday, at half past eleven, the priest said the Irish Mass. Men of all ages, in blazers and slacks, lined the church walls. Huddled beneath the sparse dryness of the overhang, they murmured and smoked. Just inside the porch doors, more men thronged next to collection tables and pamphlets. They never came into the church proper, not even to the men’s side.
Instead, just as communion began, I often listened for that exact moment of their exit, that hushed air-leak of evaporated pretense as the men, one by one, held the heavy door for the next and slipped out from the grip of Sunday’s obligation.
Noon had struck, and the pub door had opened.
Even as they left, the atmosphere within the church began to lighten, some sour layer removed from its devotion. Joviality spilled in from the patter of stud-tops across the tarmac as men’s voices lifted in anticipation, their call and response its own kind of sacrament.
From noon till two, frothy pints flew across that bar-top, fag-smoke thick as a clogged chimney’s puff-down spilled through the small windows, the men in their flat caps and damp overcoats arguing hounds and heifers and fair-day prices in singsong accents, loud and lively and lost of all translation to any outside ear.
When the pub door closed from two to four, bikes and cars dribbled from the single street to catch up with wives or children who had long since left for the one o’clock dinner. Lone men— of the many bachelors—traipsed the short length of the footpath to the old road, itself a narrow lane that led out to the marshy hinterland.
On this particular Sunday, I wore a dress I liked. There weren’t many garments among my hand-me-downs of which I was proud. Most outfits, my mother rummaged from the hot- press on a Saturday night, each allotment of woolen vest, knickers, socks or tights, dress or pants, tossed to each waiting child with the warning that this was it of clean clothes for the week.
The old man mumbled something.
I preened. Rolled my knee-length socks to my ankles to better tan my winter-white skin. At that hour, the slanted sun struck my neighbor’s gable in such a way that every patch of its glass and concrete twinkled. I knew this. Knew without a compass the exact moment that pebble dash would bask in gold, its slated rooftop, its well-nailed drainpipes, its black window trim, all seized by God’s stage light, roasted for hours like our Sunday gammon.
This sunspot was one of the many simple things I knew.
Just like I knew the cockerel at the crossroads only needed a hint of dawn to start his racket, as though he had sat watch all night long to not be outsmarted by a lowly robin or thrush. On school mornings, when I heard him, in the pitch black, boast his clouded half-guesses that even I knew were codswallop, I turned over for the catnap that took me to Mamma’s roll call. At seven o’clock, from the bottom of the stairs, I knew she would call to us in order of birth, eldest to youngest, each of our six names a complaint and yet, a proclamation. As though we had already disobeyed her before our eyes had fluttered open, and yet, by virtue of our existence, had proved her maternal mettle.
All these things I knew, just as the sun that Sunday afternoon, on that exact windowsill, caught me in its glare and filled me with sensations for which I had no name.
When the old man stumbled over to greet me, I already knew him. His homeward zigzag was not just a Sunday spectacle, but any weekday, at any open pub hour. The staggering. The dirty pants, fly undone, neck-stained shirt collar, buttons loose. Brogues frayed at the toe-line, no polish to cover their age. Sometimes, twine to hold his overcoat closed.
On that Sunday, something in me lit something in him.
I could see this.
It pleased me.
His lips smiled. But the smile held something else for which
I had no name. It said it didn’t like me, and yet, it did. It said I was a good-for-nothing and yet good-for-everything.
Mostly, I knew he saw something.
And I wanted to be the kind of person that people saw something in.
More than anything, I wanted that.
It was hard to be special in our house.
Dadda was special because his heart could stop at any moment. Anyone who could drop dead while you blinked got to be the most important person in any room.
The older boys were special because they were lads and had hard homework like Latin, so they could get good state jobs and take some worry off Dadda’s heart.
The older girls were important too, not in the same way as the lads, but they needed help with their Domestic Science so they could get into the honors classes.
The baby—my younger brother—now five, was the golden calf everyone wanted to pat. Him and his golden curls. The summer before, my curly hair had turned from blond to brown, and my front teeth had come in crooked. No more passing from one lap to the next for me. Now, I had a new nickname, Ruby, that ugly scullery maid from Upstairs Downstairs. Most days, all I could think of was the Stay Blonde shampoo they sold on television. If I could get my hands on that, I might have some chance.
The old man threw his shoulder against the wall to steady himself.
Leaned over and patted my knee.
“Where’s your father?” he asked.
“In the kitchen,” I said. “Will I get him?”
Sometimes, these old men came to the door with council forms. Or land grants or some such. Dadda was the village teacher, so he knew everything. That made him even more special.
Master, the old people called him. Tipped their caps.
“No, no,” the old man said, “don’t get him. And your Mammy, where is she?”
“Cleaning up,” I said.
His stench, now heated by the sun, filled the gap between us. Made it hard to breathe. I wanted to swing my legs to the ground, but one of my shoes rested on the hem of his blazer. I felt embarrassed. Had it been anyone else, I might have said, mind your coat. But nothing about his coat needed minding. It felt odd to have a dirty shoe on his clothes. He didn’t seem to notice.
He rubbed my leg where the sun had started its toasting.
“You’re a nice girl,” he said. “You’d make a fine wife.”
Up close, his cheeks bloomed a nasty shade of purple. His nose, sore-looking at the tip, sniffed at me. My own cheeks scalded, like he dared to even think I smelled. I’d had a fine scrub last night. More than he had.
His eyes had a half-mad look to them, like they didn’t know where to land. They darted down my legs, up to my face, over to the old shop, and back again.
It made me dizzy to watch him.
“Lovely,” he said.
Another squeeze. This time, on my knee.
Something felt grown-up. The thing about being grown-up was that you just never knew when someone would treat you like you were older. Then you had to play along like you deserved to be as old as they thought you were. Otherwise, you went back to being almost nine and useless.
But something else too. The way his hand squeezed my knee. The kind of squeeze another neighbor gave me. A squeeze that meant other things. Things that happened in the locked sacristy when the church was empty. Things that neighbor did with his fly down. Things that made him mutter I love you for a short while and then shove me out the sacristy door like I’d done something terrible to him.
Like this old sod was asking me for something. Not ordering me across the lane with some dog whistle. This was different. I couldn’t quite put it together in my head. Some half-shadow, half-light of new information danced around the edges of my mind.
“What do you want?” I asked.
The old man smiled. A wet, sloppy smile.
“Will you marry me?”
His voice wavered, half pleading, half nervous. Loose teeth clattered when he spoke.
My stomach churned, and yet, I was excited.
He slouched lower, closed the gap between us. At this short distance, his eyes had the look of sour milk and a dirty windshield. My auntie across the road said the white of a person’s eyes could tell you a multitude. All her nursing years in England after the war taught her that. I watched Dadda’s eyes daily: foggy, bloodshot, bright, dim. All such reports, I delivered to Auntie, and in those moments, I too felt every inch the war nurse.
The old man stepped closer, as though into the porchway of whatever sacrament had started between us. His blazer now covered my strap-and-buckle shoe. My sideways-seated posture felt more like I was lying down. Something private. Like those blond girls on CHiPs with Eric Estrada.
“That carry on,” Mamma would sometimes mutter.
But it seemed so ordinary too.
I wanted that kind of ordinary.
The old man—his whole head trembling—asked again,
“Will you marry me?”
This was something he asked every girl and woman in the parish. Indeed, the only name anyone had for him was will you marry me.
Yet, I grew in anticipation.
If he thought me special, even his strange kind of special, the kind everyone mocked—”Oh, there goes will you marry me, no wife by him yet”—which, even as a youngster, I could understand, his whole getup head-to-toe, skin-to-bone ugly, still, he saw something in me.
And he was asking me.
It was the asking.
This was what excited me.
My belly fluttered like when the lads at school chased after me for the football. How I’d run faster. Dodge and duck right up to the goal. Kick it in. Scream in victory.
My older sisters did that too. Made me run after things. Waved a favorite hair slide or Jackie magazine before me, and just as I’d put my fingertips on it, they’d snap it away, say, “No, not earned yet. Go make me a cup of tea, and then you can have it.”
Like they were the boss of me.
Now, I was the boss.
The old man’s hand inched past my knee. My dress slipped up with his effort. He squeezed. I knew this kind of squeezing. It wasn’t so bad once you knew what was coming. His eyes started to dance in his head. If I were to give Auntie a word, I’d say they were glassy.
My own head felt a bit dizzy. My heart hammered fast in my chest.
This will teach him, I thought. But I couldn’t say what it would teach him.
“I don’t think I want to marry you,” I said.
My answer pleased him.
“I have money at home,” he said. “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
My voice was bolder now. It surprised me. What in God’s name would my sisters say if they saw me? They’d make breakfast, dinner, and supper out of the whole thing. Already they had me paired with every ugly sod in the place, Mrs. This or Mrs. That at every meal. Never a nice man. Only other goms like this one.
“I can make an extra bob at the bog,” he said. His hand slid along to my thigh as though his talk might distract me from his journey.
I half smiled, pulled my dress back an inch or so.
This was the best feeling in the whole world, to be in charge like this.
“Not enough,” I said. “What else do you have?”
I was beginning to imagine things now, like maybe I’d get a field from him, or a cow. Not that I’d be allowed to keep them. But still.
Village sounds came in and out. Close. Far away. Hounds groused at the back of Auntie’s. A distant car on the low road drilled round some bend.
But not a person stirred. Just us.
Me and him.
Our own back door opened the next house over. Mamma taking a look at the clothesline to see if any breeze was stirring the sheets. Mamma did this, went from front door to back door to barometer, eyes constantly on the weather, low pressure, high pressure, rain on the way, her hourly reports to everyone and no one all at the same time.
“I’ll buy you a new dress,” the old man said.
His feet shifted beneath him, like he’d lost his balance. His hand slipped, too, and the suddenness of his movement shook me from my reverie.
“Clear away,” a voice roared from behind us.
I jumped to my feet. Color drained from my face.
The old man swung his head just as the woman from the bar landed beside us.
Her whole face fumed. I couldn’t tell who she was more disgusted by, me or him.
“You.” She poked his shoulder. “Go home, you boyo.”
“And you,” she jabbed the air in my direction, “go home.”
Her words broke into two long sentences.
Beneath her words, another one, unspoken but right there, on her twisted face.
This exact look freighted with such meaning that I could, from five or six, pick the word tramp from Mamma’s features. Dadda’s, too, him sometimes muttering, “Tinkerish” at the sight of a certain woman in town, the very glimpse of her striding down the footpath in her above-the-knee skirts that left no room for forgiveness, and flowery, too-tight blouses, her large breasts free of all harnessing, enough to cloud Dadda’s face—
Mamma’s, too—with pure repulsion.
Cheap, the air between them said.
Not in a good way like five cans of peach slices in syrup for fifty pence, but cheap in head-to-toe bad. Especially when news broke that the garish woman with her bright blue eye shadow was doing a line with Dadda’s cousin, a fact that might drag us all to the devil’s door with them.
This was the look from the barwoman that day.
Cheap, it said.
My ears scalded. I knew I had done something. I knew that.
Hadn’t I been carrying on with that old lad, waiting to see if he’d get bolder, go for the squeeze in the broad daylight? Was that what I was after? Him to do it out in the open? Thoughts tumbled round and round in my head even as the barwoman’s fury scalded a patch of something terrible into my skin. Some secret she might now whisper to the whole place.
Mind your husband round that young one.
Has a streak of want in her.
They had names for everyone in our parish, and once you got the name, you couldn’t shake it loose even if you had the vet come to de-hoof you.
I wanted to scream.
To scream something at her, at the old man, at the whole village. But what good would that do, only have Mamma come to the top of the road and see all the commotion. And it wouldn’t matter who said what. Her first words would be: “What did that one do now?”
As though she already expected trouble and knew, as she often said, that her crowd would be neck-high in blame.
What good would it do to scream, though my blood boiled from some other stream building inside me that might, had it found its outlet, sound something like: How well you can see this boyo and not that other boyo staggering out of your bar half dead from drink? How well his whistle across the road to me isn’t heard by you or anyone? How come no one can explain to me why I’m petrified not to do what he says in case what . . . in case he blames me, and no amount of explaining will be enough to not have me branded with all kinds of names—mad, Mary Magdalene, the Lord Himself couldn’t stay clean with that one around the place.
I stood, rooted to the spot.
All of us frozen there, like we had peeled back something rotten.
Now, we didn’t know what to do with it.
I knew full well I couldn’t stop whatever the barwoman had seen of me. A flicker caught my eye across the way, the filthy net curtain dropping closed. The shop owner’s smirking face suddenly gone from what must have been full view. My stomach dropped.
It just went from bad to worse.
I had done something dirty. I couldn’t give it a name, not if you paid me.
But I had been carrying on. Others saw it too. Saw right inside my head to that exact spot where I had asked for it. Hadn’t I? Asked for it?
I took off running, dashed past my own front yard, down the lane to the crossroads. With every thud of one foot, then the other, on stony ground, something new came into view. I would never again play that game. That was a bad game. One that could swoop through our front door, in one report, from that foul grocer, or fuming barwoman, and Dadda would keel over, dead on the kitchen linoleum. All because I was caught, like that trollop in town, asking for it.
And that’d be my name.
There she goes: Asking for it.
And did you hear? Herself and will you marry me are doing a line.
And they’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
Other writing by Saoirse E. Doyle has appeared in Bryant Literary Review, Agave Magazine, White Wall Review, Sweet Tree Review, Big Muddy, The Ignatian Literary Magazine, Entropy, and The Magic of Memoir. Her work focuses primarily on her Irish upbringing and what she carries inside of a troubled country and its history. She enjoys photography, searching for the elusive “perfect chair,” and public speaking.
“Will You Marry Me?” was republished from the Delmarva Review (Volume 15), a nonprofit literary journal that selects the most compelling new nonfiction, fiction, and poetry from thousands of submissions during the year. It is available worldwide from Amazon.com and other major bookstores. The review is designed by its founders to encourage outstanding new writing from authors everywhere. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.