Book Series: IRISH BLUE Author: Sheila Willar Copyright: 2021 Sheila Willar ISBN #: 978-0-9867101-4-8
Book Title: THE CHAPEL Chapter #: 02 - NEW YORK
After the funeral, Erin returned to Dublin where a gloomy Fall season slipped into a silent winter, and blankets of snow bedded down the trees at night. The sounds of Dublin were reduced to faint echoes, but the pain of the funeral had only ebbed ever so slightly. Erin had barely talked to anyone in her family, especially not Father Michael, who was for her, salt in a far too precious wound.
The warm Spring sun was just around the corner and with it an opportunity to accept a student internship at Mancinni’s, a well known architectural firm in New York city. The prospect of getting away and travelling to America with its iconic skylines and bustling streets, was a perfect way to distance herself from the past and sweep it underfoot. However, when she phoned home to share the good news, her mother was instantly not keen on it.
“Don’t they have architecture here in Ireland?” she asked as if Erin was a bit daft on that point. Despite the cajoling, Erin could not be dissuaded from leaving, so her mother arranged a place for her to stay with cousins Maggy and Kelly, who lived downtown New York.
Erin had goosebumps just thinking about how modern and exciting it would be. She daydreamed about loft apartments in renovated warehouses with large windows and open concept, sparsely decorated rooms. She imagined brightly coloured furniture and recessed floor lighting that cast shadows across pebbled concrete floors.
However, on the other side of the ocean her cousins were sorting through what was left of their mother’s Victorian furniture, left behind after their parent’s divorce. While Erin hoped that her cousins would introduce her to a more avant-garde world, they hoped that Erin would add some authentic old-world charm to theirs.
Erin arrived on the first of May and the three girls got along like the best of friends, each absorbing the life of the other. Erin traded in her home-spun wool hand-me-down sweaters and tweed coat, for ruffled cotton blouses and jean jackets. Maggy said that she could smell the salt air and clover on the clothes, but Erin said it was more likely lanolin and moth balls.
Erin was so glad not to be reminded of her home, that on her first day of work she wore a rather severe black suit that belonged to her aunt. It was more matronly than modern, with safety pins holding the temporary hem of the pants.
She walked to work along the busy streets where the people were twelve across and she felt like a salmon swimming up an asphalt stream. Straight up there was a narrow strip of blue sky and down at ground level there were endless rows of look-alike shops and line-ups for food vendors, who flipped and packaged food so fast that it made Erin nervous. She began to wonder if she could keep up with the pace of the big city.
Finally she arrived at the Mancinni building and entered the double wide glass doors and stepped into a world that would change her life forever. Giant alabaster columns and slender sycamore trees in terra-cotta pots lined the satin rose travertine. It made Erin desperate to kick off her shoes and walk barefoot over the cool stonework that was dusted with the powdery sands of the Mediterranean.
She went straight to the 21st floor where a receptionist nonchalantly escorted her to a cubicle and gave the instructions, “Do not bother people! Wait for someone to contact you.” She sat alone and wrote notes to herself and fidgeted with the chair for several hours until a man and a woman suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“Is this her?” the man asked.
“I guess,” answered the woman, neither of them impressed or satisfied.
“Well …,” paused the man.
“Come with us,” said the woman blandly. “They want you upstairs.”
Erin stood up to introduce herself but they had gone. She hurriedly grabbed her knapsack and shuffled down the aisle and caught up to them just as they entered the elevator. She smiled and wanted to say something but knew not to speak. The silence was awkward for Erin but not for them.
They went to the 41st floor and Erin’s jaw dropped at the sight of the beautiful marble lined walls with inset carvings of running ivy and oak leaves, punctuated by crystal sconces and rainfall chandeliers on the ceiling. The effect was one of walking through a garden made of stone and glass. Never had she seen such fine work before in her life.
She nearly felt weak as she rounded the corner and entered a large glass walled conference room, where a serious meeting with about 30 people in it was well under way.
Some of the eyes in the room gave a brief glance towards her as she tip-toed to an empty seat, where she listened to presentations and debates about foundations, colours and lighting schemes. Several times she wanted to say something but then she remembered that the receptionist had said, “Don’t speak!”
Erin had already learned the hard way that in a room filled with contention, "good ideas" can make things worse. In the Mancinni’s case, most of the arguments were about "who" would do the work, preferring to keep design secrets passed down from generation to generation within their family.
Over the next few weeks Erin attended regular meetings and noted that minute-taking was a rare form of diplomacy, a tight-rope walk of sorts in which the records had to balance what was said with what was politically correct. When the minutes were read, there was a lot of eye-rolling, but no challenges.
The most interesting person in the boardroom was Mrs. Astor Mancinni Sr., who was referred to simply as “A” in the minutes. Astor and her husband John had founded the company over 50 years ago. They were in their eighties and lived apart and everyone speculated that it was because “A” was very difficult to get along with.
Astor always sat in the same chair next to her son Justin. She wore large, thick-rimmed glasses in fluorescent colours of lime, fuchsia and sky-blue, to match her collection of expensive silk scarves that she draped over her shoulder. Sometimes she stared off into space as if she was dreaming of being a pilot in an open cock-pit airplane, about to cross the Atlantic with her scarf blowing in the wind.
Mrs. A was so bored with the meetings that she often fell asleep and snored, which drove her son crazy. He would kick her chair and she would jump to life with a snort. She did not speak very often but when she did she bordered on belligerent, with the abruptness of a snapping turtle. Sometimes the speaker was visibly shaken when she cut them off and cut them down a peg. One time a speaker claimed that he didn’t have money in the budget for the proposed work, to which Mrs. Mancinni said that she spent more money on liposuction and that perhaps he could use some too.
It wasn’t very easy to get noticed by Mrs. A, but one day Erin did just that.
It happened during a presentation about a new bell tower that the Mancinni’s were building. Erin noticed that it was exactly like the one she used to play in as a kid back home in Kinkerry. Her mind flooded with memories of hiding up there with her siblings who would occasionally swing from the scratchy ropes, much to the horror of her mother who heard the cacophony from below in the sanctuary.
Erin’s older cousin Clerry, who spent a lot of time in the bell tower, was a general handyman who worked for Father Michael. He wasn’t fancy but he always finished a project with a smile, probably because he helped himself to a bottle or two of communion wine. Erin cautiously helped Clerry by holding the ladder for him and passing up nails and boards, and occasionally the hammer when he dropped it.
“Whoever built this tower should be shot!” exclaimed Clerry every time he worked on it. “The whole lot of them. They should be taken out and shot! Sure everyone knows you can’t build it like that!” he shouted as he fished for a lever to pry off the rotting slats of timber.
Father Michael had told the children not to play in the bell tower because the roof was crumbling. The buttresses nested in such a way that rain water ran along the beams and sat in the seams. The rotten wood smell and the bits of ceiling that had fallen to the floor were fresh in Erin’s mind.
She knew that the design being presented to the Mancinni’s was the same one that frustrated Clerry, but the thought of confronting the renowned Professor Brown caused so much anxiety that she began to have doubts.
“Maybe,” Erin thought, “I’m mistaken about the whole thing.” Maybe Clerry was an old drunk who didn’t know what he was talking about.
Maybe when the bell and its ropes and crossbeams all fell to the floor on the day of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary almost killing Father Penney, maybe it was due to something other than poor design.
Maybe when Father Michael said that he had half a mind to blow the whole tower right off the church for the fuss it caused, maybe Father Michael was just blowing off steam.
Try as she might, Erin couldn’t reason away the need to say something to Professor Brown who wielded a laser beam over his slides. She cleared her throat and raised her hand to say something but was ignored.
It was Astor Mancinni who acknowledged Erin.
“Yes dear?” asked Mrs. A., who was delighted at the thought of a face-off and a possible skirmish. Anything to break up the monotony of a dull afternoon.
“Well,” began Erin. “I have had some experience with this particular bell tower design, and several people have questioned its, its, its,” Erin stuttered as she looked from Professor Brown's eyes to Justin Mancinni’s eyes, to the almost laughing Mrs. Mancinni. “People have a problem with its integrity”.
Professor Brown hadn’t gotten as far as he had in the world by allowing the likes of young girls such as Erin to make a mockery of him. He had more riding on the believability of what he said than the actual truth of it. He made a slight head bow to Justin complete with a smile that he had practiced for decades, and turned to address Erin.
Mrs. Mancinni was almost clapping now with the prospect of an actual fight. This is what she lived for. Perhaps she would take them all out for dinner later so that she could watch it continue into the evening.
Everyone except Erin knew that the professor’s designs were not going to be used anyway and that he was only hired because he was somehow related to the Pope. Justin Mancinni already had a different set of plans that his team was working on. Erin had no idea that while her crusade would gain points for bravery, it was a completely empty pursuit.
“Young miss,” began Professor Brown, “Where did you say you graduated from? And what research are you referring to?”
Erin had no university degree and no documented research, save the sound of Clerry’s voice saying “Damned stupid bell tower!”
“Dear God Almighty,” thought Erin. “What have I done?” She looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming automobile, frozen and unable to save herself.
There were snickers around the room as the professor traded knowing glances with other academics who were seated around the table. He felt that he was just minutes away from seeing this waif of a girl run from the room in a fit of tears.
Justin was about to stand up and intervene when Erin began to speak. She started slowly and little by little gained her confidence and the attention of the room. She only stuck to what she knew and referred to Clerry as the “skilled trades worker” and Father Michael as “the client”.
She walked to the front of the room and pointed to the slide and showed the dark mould that was evident in the crossbeams due to poor drainage and to the fractures in the stone where the water had seeped into cracks and frozen. She carefully told her story, a bit too dramatic at times, but she made it clear that the proposal should require a second look.
Professor Brown was not to be undone, saying that while she made a good case, she lacked the scientific research and documented evidence that was the only grounds upon which such statements could be verified. Erin agreed and they both nodded to each other.
She felt ridiculous when she looked around the room and saw that absolutely no one was interested or even listening. They were all staring at their phones, hoping to leave early enough to beat the traffic. Erin’s speech for them had simply been a waste of time. No one was impressed by her, except for Mrs. A, who loved a good fight.
“Fools!” muttered Mrs. A loud enough for everyone to hear.
Erin was not sure who Astor was referring to. Office politics was complicated enough, and it didn’t matter anyway, because Justin quickly announced that the meeting was over and everyone disappeared, scrambling to the elevators like kids on the last day of school.
Both Erin and Mr. Brown were off the hook, at least until another day.
Even though the meetings were tiring and difficult, Erin was glad that she had come to New York for her work-term. She thought it would be a good experience. She was glad that she had picked the Mancinni's, but it was Mrs. A who was glad that she had picked Erin.