THE CHERRYWOOD BANJO
by Pat McDermott
A violent mugging leaves Boston photographer Gabbi Roy
afraid to venture out on her own. Trusting in the healing help of her cameras,
Gabbi visits Ireland for Christmas.
Her plan is on track until a stranger wrestles her to the ground.
CHAPTER TWO EXCERPT - A REUNION AT THE PUB
Gabbi couldn’t punch the thug who’d tackled her from behind. He’d pinned her arms to the pavement. Her legs too. She might be flat on her back, but her self-defense classes had taught her a trick or two.
A crisp nod signaled Nora’s approval. “Good one, Gabbi. Once we’ve fallen into the pub, I’m thinking we’ll agree. I want to hear some Christmas music.”
She raised her head and shrieked in his ear: “Get off me, you big jerk!”
The big jerk pushed away from her. “Jayzus, woman. My ears! Are you all right? Here, take my hand.”
Gasping hard, she sought some means of escape: his outstretched arm could be a trap. “I can get up myself.”
Rapid footsteps click-clacked toward her. “Gabbi, are you okay?”
Suzanne. Gabbi rolled herself onto her elbows. “I think so. I’m more embarrassed than anything. What happened?” Her suspicious squint spotted the big jerk’s hand, still outstretched to help her.
“You slipped,” he said, “and the car that almost hit you never even stopped.” His deep-voiced Irish accent almost sounded musical. He moved his hand closer to her. “Come on now. The ground is cold.”
With Suzanne and the others around, he wouldn’t dare try anything funny. Gabbi let him pull her up, though the power in her well-toned legs deserved more credit for bringing her to her feet than the stunning strength in his hand.
His really warm hand.
His entire face came into view. He looked less intimidating, and the Christmas tree cast a sidelight over his features that gave him a chiseled, roughhewn look.
He was at least six inches taller than her five-foot-five height. She had to look up when she mumbled her thanks. After she did, she looked quickly away, touching her oversized woolen beret to ensure that it still sat straight on her head, and that no stray wisps of hair had escaped. No need to look like a total dork. She’d already acted like one. Would she ever shake off what had happened in Boston?
Suzanne caught hold of Gabbi’s arms. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Ronan Swanton, is that you?” Joan closed in on the three of them, elbowing her way past Suzanne and Gabbi to clasp the man in an enthusiastic hug. “Nora told us you were home. How’s every bit of you, lad? Ah, it’s grand to see you. You’re a cure for sore eyes, no word of a lie.”
“So are you, Auntie Joan.” Ronan neatly picked her up, kissed her cheek, and set her down. “It’s been a while, yes.”
A smiling woman who stood near the clock tower approached them. “Hello, Auntie Joan. Suzanne. Hey there, Brendan,” she called to Joan’s husband, meandering toward them from the tea shop.
Tugging on Gabbi’s sleeve, Suzanne stepped back. Gabbi realized they’d landed in the midst of a family reunion. She stepped back too, giving the relatives room for their hugs. She saw it then: three pairs of dynamic blue eyes and an unmistakable family resemblance. Her inner armor melted. She’d be safe enough with these people. She already adored Joan, the matriarch of the Connigan clan, who wasted no time introducing the two new arrivals.
“Now let me see. Everyone but Gabbi knows my niece, Nora Moran. Nora, meet Suzanne’s friend, Gabrielle Roy from Boston. She’s visiting us for Christmas.”
Nora raised a gloved hand and curled her fingers. “Hello, Gabbi. Welcome to Westport.”
“Thanks, Nora. I’ve only been here a few days, and I’m already loving it.”
Strains of music from the pub seemed to accompany Joan as she continued. “Nora’s father was my brother, Martin Sweeney. Her sister Cecilia was Ronan’s mother. Ronan Swanton, say hello to Gabrielle Roy.”
The family tree recital bewildered Gabbi. She’d never keep everyone straight, though she wouldn’t have to. She’d be leaving Westport soon after New Year’s Day.
Again Ronan held out his hand. This time she took it without hesitation. “Glad to officially meet you, Ronan.”
“Likewise.” His handshake was swift but firm.
Her arm tingled all the way to her shoulder. “Thanks for knocking me out of the way of that car.”
“Happy to be of service. Sorry I couldn’t save the camera.”
“What? Oh! My camera!” So intent had Gabbi been on her dramatic rescue—and her rescuer—she’d forgotten about the camera. “Where is it?”
Suzanne still hovered nearby. “The car ran over it. Better the camera than you, Gab.”
“All the shots I’ve taken for the contest!” Gabbi spun toward the street and searched the sidewalk and gutter. “Maybe I can salvage the memory card.”
Ronan stepped to the edge of the curb. “I see it. Wait here.” As he jogged to the center of the street, he looked up and down the hill nonstop, though no cars were in sight. Once he’d retrieved what was left of the camera, he hurried back, holding the crushed remains as if they might bite him. “Sorry. It looks cooked. It’d be fair play if a chunk or two of glass stuck in the fecker’s tire.”
Gabbi recalled how happy she’d been when she’d purchased the camera two days before leaving for Ireland. She eyed the ruined metal and sighed. “Thank you, Ronan. At least it’s only a point-and-shoot. I was going to bring my DSLR tonight. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s better in low light, though it’s big and heavy, and I didn’t want to lug it around all night.”
“A photographer, are you?”
“Yes.” She sighed again. “It’s okay. I have other cameras. Where’s my purse? We’ll dump it in there. I’ll do what I can with the memory card later.”
Suzanne produced Gabbi’s leather bag.
Gabbi opened it and unzipped an empty compartment. “Could you put it in there, please?”
Ronan obliged. “You’ll be careful when you take it out, yeah?”
“I will, yes.”
“Good man, Ronan.” Brendan approached them, his pearly smile crinkling the skin surrounding his keen brown eyes. “I’m Brendan O’Rooney, Joan’s husband. I’m not sure you’ll remember me.”
“Of course I do. We met at my father’s wake. Suzanne, you were there too. You’re my cousin Andy’s wife.”
“Yes. I’m glad to see you under happier circumstances.”
The men shook hands. Brendan patted Ronan’s shoulder and eyed Joan in the sweetest way. “Now that we’ve all been properly introduced, let’s go inside. That music is beckoning, and I’m bog thirsty. Hungry too.”
Joan rolled her eyes. “When hunger comes in the door, romance goes up the chimney. Come along then. We’ll have them pour you a glass of supper. ’Tis perishing cold out here anyway. There’s a stepmother’s breath in the air that would freeze the arse off an Eskimo.”
Ronan laughed easily. “I’m no Eskimo, and I like the cold. I consider it a blessing.”
Joan’s feisty humor failed. She gazed sadly at Ronan. “’Twould be a blessing indeed, after those summers you spent in the heat, Captain Swanton.”
“Please don’t call me that, Auntie Joan. It’s nearly a year since I left the army.”
“Very well, Mr. Swanton. Nora, fetch your banjo, and we’ll go in.”
Ronan’s face screwed up in horror. “Ah feck, the banjo! I didn’t mean to drop it. Sorry, Nora. I hope it’s okay.”
Nora hefted the banjo case from the sidewalk. She seemed unconcerned. “I’m sure it’s grand. It’s padded well enough.”
An appropriate line of poetry popped into Gabbi’s head. “The poet Rumi said, ‘It doesn’t matter if one of our instruments breaks. We have fallen into the place where everything is music.’”