There they are, the holybugs, widows in their weeds and fat-ankled mothers with palsied children, all lined up before the snotgreen likeness of the Virgin, and McGahee and McCarey among them. This statue, alone among all the myriad three-foot-high snotgreen likenesses of the Virgin cast in plaster by Finbarr Finnegan & Sons, Cork City, was seen one grim March afternoon some years back to move its limbs ever so slightly, as if seized suddenly by the need of a good sinew-cracking stretch. Nuala Nolan, a young girl in the throes of Lenten abnegation, was the only one to witness the movement – a gentle beckoning of the statue’s out-thrust hand – after a fifteen-day vigil during which she took nothing into her body but Marmite and soda water. Ever since, the place has been packed with tourists.
Even now, in the crowd of humble countrymen in shit-smeared boots and knit skullcaps, McGahee can detect a certain number of Teutonic or Manhattanite faces above cable-knit sweaters and pendent cameras. Drunk and in debt, on the run from a bad marriage, two DWI convictions and the wheezy expiring gasps of his moribund mother, McGahee pays them no heed. His powers of concentration run deep. He is forty years old, as lithe as a boxer though he’s done no hard physical labour since he took a construction job between semesters at college twenty years back, and he has the watery eyes and doleful, doglike expression of the saint. Twelve hours ago he was in New York, at Paddy Flynn’s, pouring out his heart and enumerating his woes for McCarey, when McCarey said, ‘Fuck it, let’s go to Ireland.’ And now here he is at Ballinspittle, wearing the rumpled Levi’s and Taiwanese sports coat he’d pulled on in his apartment yesterday morning, three hours off the plane from Kennedy and flush with warmth from the venerable Irish distillates washing through his veins.
McCarey – plump, stately McCarey – stands beside him, bleary-eyed and impatient, disdainfully scanning the crowd. Heads are bowed. Infants snuffle. From somewhere in the distance comes the bleat of a lamb and the mechanical call of the cuckoo. McGahee checks his watch: they’ve been here seven minutes already and nothing’s happened. His mind begins to wander. He’s thinking about orthodontics – thinking an orthodontist could make a fortune in this country – when he looks up and spots her, Nuala Nolan, a scarecrow of a girl, an anorectic, bones-in-a-sack sort of girl, kneeling in front of the queue and reciting the Mysteries in a voice parched for food and drink. Since the statue moved she has stuck to her diet of Marmite and soda water until the very synapses of her brain have become encrusted with salt and she raves like a mariner lost at sea. McGahee regards her with awe. A light rain has begun to fall.