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As Seasons Change

by Carole Bellacera

Published in Ireland's Woman's Way, January 1993

For thirty-eight years she'd watched him go to work...

Claire sits at the shuttered window and waits. Outside, it's late autumn, the eve of winter. Soon, he will be walking by on his way to the corner pastry shop where he'll read his morning paper with a strong cup of tea and a raisin rum crumpet. At precisely 8.32, he'll get up from the table, tuck his newspaper under his arm, check and make sure he has his umbrella and leave the pastry shop for the two-block walk to the Irish book store where he works.

Claire knows this. When she was younger, she used to follow him, staying out of sight, of course. For his sake. Because she knew if he saw her, then everything would come clear to him. And once again, his life would be in danger. After the fall on the icy walkway outside her building two years ago, Claire quit following him. Now, she sits at her window, waiting for the first highlight of her day. There will be a second one later as the shadows lengthen and the day comes to a close.

She catches her breath. A figure has turned the corner. It's him! As usual, he is dressed immaculately in a suit and a light raincoat. On his white head, he wears a soft black hat. As he draws closer, Claire's eyes fill with tears. To her, he is as handsome as he was the day they met nearly forty years ago.

They would never have met if it hadn't been for America. The program to bring Northern Irish children of both religions to American homes for the summer was an experimental one. Claire, because of her high grades in school, had been one of the first chosen. Her entire life had been spent in the Shankill area of Belfast, a Loyalist Protestant neighbourhood. She'd never had any Catholic playmates, had never knowingly associated with anyone from the Papist religion. From childhood, she'd been told by her parents, aunts, uncles and brothers that the Catholics were lazy, dirty, sly and vicious. Their ultimate goal was to rid the country of all Protestants and everyone else who was loyal to the British Crown. Claire had no reason to doubt anything she was told. After all, the newspapers were full of the filthy deeds of the Irish Republican Army.

But in that summer of 1951, she'd met Shane Killeen at a dance hall in Cleveland, Ohio. Her American friend, Sharon, introduced them, knowing they were both Irish, both from Belfast. Sharon, however, didn't realize the significance of which part of Belfast each of them came from. Shane was from Falls Road, Claire from the Shankill. Within minutes, they knew they were more different from each other than they were from Sharon and the other Americans around them.

But Claire found Shane's dark eyes compelling. He thought she was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen, with her bobbed blonde hair and clear blue eyes. Shane was an eloquent conversationalist; they avoided the subject of religion and talked about literature and music. By the night's end, they'd danced several times. Claire liked feeling Shane's arms around her; she felt secure and protected there.

He asked to walk her home. At the door of her American host's home, he told her wanted to be a poet some day. Claire confessed her dream of being a Hollywood movie star like Rita Hayworth or Ingrid Bergman. He kissed her on the lips. Claire closed her eyes, inhaling his scent. It was a good scent. Not one of sheep dung and peat fires, as her relatives had always said, but clean and masculine.

The summer went by too fast. Claire spent every evening with Shane. He began to teach her about Irish history. It opened up a new world of understanding to her. For the first time in her life, she realized why they lived in a troubled society.

By August, they knew they were in love. The impossibility of their situation never entered their minds. They were young, optimistic and convinced that love would conquer all. A week before they were due to return to Belfast, Claire offered her virginity to Shane in the back seat of the Ford Fairlane he'd borrowed from his host family to take her to the local drive-in movie. Afterwards, Shane held Claire tight in his arms and as their breathing steadied, they became aware of the voices of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher chattering through the car speaker. Tears of awe tracked down Claire's face at the encompassing love she felt for this man whose breath kissed her bare shoulder. And for the first time, she felt fear for their future.

It was a fear that soon proved justified. At home in Belfast, she confronted her parents and brothers with her love for Shane. Their fury was beyond anything Claire had ever imagined. Her father's bull-like neck bulged with angry veins. He hit her once with the back of his hand. She fell to the floor and lay unmoving, terrified he wasn't done with his abuse. Her mother glared down at her, an expression of disgust on her weathered face.

"Slut." she said before she walked away.

Her brothers cursed her in vile street language. Through it all, Claire saw Shane's sweet face. His gentle hand. Heard his rich voice reading her his poetry. She couldn't give him up. She wouldn't.

They arranged to meet at a neutral place. A park near a shopping district in West Belfast. But Shane didn't show up. Claire was beside herself with worry. Something had happened. She took a bus to Falls Road. When she stepped off and began to walk down the street towards the row house where he lived, she noticed children had paused in play and were staring at her. Did she look so different? She knocked at Shane's door and a haggard woman answered. Her dark eyes, Shane's eyes, looked her up and down, and then wearily stepped back from the door.

"You might as well come in and see what you've brought him."

He was lying in a back bedroom, his eyes swollen shut and blackened. His lean face was a mass of bruises, his lips were bloody and raw. Claire began to cry. He reached out for her. She clasped his hands, unable to speak because of her tears.

"Who did this to him?" she asked his mother before she left.

Her face was grim. "Perhaps you should be asking that in your own neighbourhood."

She didn't have to. When she arrived home, her older brother, Clint. grinned at her and said, "The next time you see him, it'll be his kneecaps. And if you see him again after that, we'll eliminate the problem altogether."

Claire knew he was serious. With trembling fingers, she wrote Shane a letter, hoping the tear stains that blotted it would be undetectable. "It was wrong what we did. I don't love you, and I'm sorry if you thought differently. I was playing with you for sport. Surely you didn't expect to carry it on here. I have my reputation to think of, and I can't be seen with someone like you. Don't try to see me, Shane. I don't want to ask my brothers to hurt you again."

It was brutal, she knew. But it had to be. Otherwise, Shane wouldn't give up. After a week of silence, she knew he'd taken the message to heart.

Two months later, when Claire learned of the life inside her womb, she had nowhere to turn except for her mother. Her family arranged to take care of that problem, too. When the surgeon's knife cut into her to excise the last bit of Shane from her body, Claire knew that she had reached the autumn of her life, even though she was only nineteen.

One morning two years later, quite by accident, she saw Shane walking down Bedford Street. He went into a book store and didn't come out. When this happened several days in a row, Claire realized he was working there. For two weeks, she followed him to work, staying out of sight. It hurt to look at him, but the memory of him hurt worse. She took a job at a grocer's near Bedford and finally earned enough to move out of her parents' home and into a tiny flat overlooking Shane's route to work.

For the last thirty-eight years, she'd watched him go to and from work every week day. She knew nothing about him. Had he married? Had he published that book of poetry he'd always intended to? Had he forgotten a girl named Claire?

Claire waits for him. It is half past five and he is late. Butterflies flutter in her stomach. Shane is never late. He closes the shop at five, tucks his umbrella under his arm and walks up Bedford. He passes beneath her window every afternoon at ten past five. But not today.

Painfully, Claire rises from her chair and pulls on a tattered tweed coat. At the mirror in the hallway, she crushes an old wool hat upon her snow-white hair and pinches her hollowed cheeks for colour. If she meets up with him, she wants to look good.

It isn't easy making her way down the stairs with her bad leg. Outside, she walks down Bedford toward the book store. Her heartbeat quickens at the thought of seeing him again, face-to-face, after all these years. Her brothers are gone, both shot down by the IRA five years before. They pose no threat to Shane now.

A blue light is flashing down the street. An ambulance is pulled up in front of the book store. A hard knot of fear clutches at Claire's insides. Her brain tells her to turn away, but her feet keep moving towards the store.

She arrives just as the paramedics carry out a stretcher. A blanket shrouds the figure upon it, but as they turn to slide it into the waiting ambulance Claire sees the thatch of white hair peeping out.

"What happened?" an inquisitive bystander asks.

"Poor old sod's heart gave out." The paramedic shakes his head. "A shame, it tis. With his book just coming out and all." He gestures toward the window of the store where a pyramid of books are arranged to catch the customer's eye.

Her heart is bumping unevenly as Claire moves to the window and stares at the books. Shane's dark brown eyes gaze out at her from the photo on the advertisement nearby. It is the only thing about him that hasn't changed since that summer in Ohio. Her eyes blur with tears when she reads the title of his book.

"Song of Claire."

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