Happy's

By Joseph Gannon



The glades of an Irish isle grow tall and unkempt. Tireless currents batter its rocky cliffs,
and evening rain refracts a rainbow’s glow. Crickets chirp while honeybees buzz. A meadow’s
blue-eyed-grass brightens the air.
An exhausted structure rests near the meadow. Half of its floorboards reside quietly on land
and half sway over a shear drop with cautioning creaks. Its windows are broken and its entrance
frowns. The roof stands, supported by an ash tree that takes root within its walls, and decades-old
postcards are nailed to the northern wall with no particular order. An eyesore to tourists, but ask
any local and the response will never change; a single word emitted from a crooked, Hibernian
smile: “Happy’s.”
In 1944, the structure was a nameless bar, owned by an untamed spirit, Nessa. She was an
anomaly on the island. She was smart and strong, and everyone knew that she was meant for more
than serving drinks. But opportunity for someone to leave the isle was seldom found.
The bar’s doors were always open and its tables were always full. The island had become a
staging area during the second world war. It was a strategic site for launching specialty teams
to strike near the English Channel. For two years, the crowd was primarily American soldiers.
Among the soldiers were two distinct groups: the new arrivals–fresh uniforms, shaven faces, and
anxiety–and the veterans–torn and dirty fatigues, broken bones and scars, and eyes moist with
melancholy. The two groups rarely merged.
A steady rain outlasted the sun one Monday. Nessa’s bar was crowded, but quiet. Smoke
hovered in the rafters, above the smell of ash and whiskey. A fire cracked in the corner, its light
casting long shadows. The men returning home sought to forget. They lost themselves in their
drinks as the shadows moved like the souls of the fallen, content to leave this world behind.
Nessa stood behind the bar top, staring across the bar. The fogged window on the northern
wall had drawn her attention. Beyond it, a man stood at the cliff’s edge, watching the horizon.
Somewhere in the distance was a battlefield that he would soon arrive at. Yet tonight, the fighting
and death was a world away.
The collar of the man’s trench coat concealed his face, but Nessa knew him well. His name
was James. He was the only soldier to make multiple trips to the island. She found him to be
something novel. His gaze carried the weight of surviving, only to wonder why; his green irises
maintaining the radiance of a child chasing a dream.
Nessa knew better than to fall for a soldier, but the heart was not a place for logic. While most
soldiers were uniforms without a face; his was a face that she could not forget.
James entered her bar long after the moon had claimed an overcast sky. He approached Nessa,
sitting on a stool at the counter, and asked for a strong drink, in a tired voice.
She had already poured him whiskey. When James stood near the cliff it meant that he would
soon be deployed. Nessa had anticipated him visiting her before leaving the island as he had seven
times before.
The two had a silent language. They communicated as partners would during a waltz; sharing
glances and shy smiles. It was a body language that no one else in the bar noticed, yet it was the
world to them. James watching her soft eyes dart away from his own; Nessa responding to every
glance with a smirk and a pass of her right hand through her hair.
Nessa wished he would ask her to run away with him, but she knew why he would not. It was
the same reason she did not want to fall for him. Soldiers died the second they deployed, and they
were not alive until they were back in your arms. Every day in between filled with body counts and
rumors about new widows. Every soldier that returned home was yours until he hugged another
woman, every casket made you a widow until another cried. Nessa would not experience that,
unless for James. He was one of the men who would survive the war.
After two hours–the usual duration of their innocent exchanges–James stood and began to leave
the bar. Then he stopped and mumbled something.
“James?”
Without turning to face Nessa, “I’ll come back.”
“You askin’ me to wait?”
He dipped his head slightly to the right, but there was no response. He left the bar without
another word and that was an answer. He was too kind to say yes and he never said no.
Slán go fóill, James.
Hate, regret, and denial found Nessa during lonely afternoons, spent listening to the crickets
chirping in the meadow. The bar was her home, and she had never considered leaving, but the
fogged window on the northern wall was always within view. Every soldier that approached the
isle’s edge was James. Every conversation carried his voice. Every chill was his eyes on her back.
After six months, the war ended. For a time, the bar remained busy with the men returning
home. This group of veterans was raucous and happy, conquerors, in their own respect. They
drank, laughed, and chanted. James was not among them.
Friday afternoon, as the sun beat down from the height of summer, the last group of men came.
The oldest group Nessa had seen yet, most 22 or 23, same as James and she. Their voices reached
her from the fire’s side. They spoke of intense resistance and heavy losses, before solemnly toasting
to their comrades whose unattended glasses remained on a table. James did not come to the bar,
but he was among them.
There were 143 flag-draped caskets. They had been placed in the meadow for a pastor to recite
one final farewell, before a ship would come to take them home. Nessa searched for James near
the eastern cliff.
Names. People. Over 100 boxes and all were filled with young soldiers from America. Across
the ocean there was a family waiting to welcome home their son, their father.
Nessa could not breath. She exited the meadow of blue-eyed-grass and sat near the cliff where
she had seen James standing so many times. She looked back at the meadow.
The sun began to set and a chill rose over the meadow. The last of the days light was obstructed
by cotton candy clouds. Slivers of orange glow fell across the flags and a breeze swept the glades
around them. The chorus of waves striking the cliff’s edge ascended through the air behind her.
The sun vanished beneath the horizon and Nessa searched the night sky for answers. The drops
of starlight glistened in her eyes. There was no answer to be found.
She lifted her right arm to brush hair away from her face to find that something was covering
her. She looked to her shoulder and found that a trench coat had been draped over her. Beside her
sat a man. He wore only a tee shirt. It was his coat over Nessa’s shoulders.
He too was searching for answers above. His hopeful green irises lost in a sea of lights. He too
found no answers, and as he turned his head toward Nessa, she saw his face, a face she could not
forget. He smiled and she responded with a smirk, and a brush of her hair.
Nessa leaned against James. The two remained in the meadow for the night. Before them
143 dreams that had died, 143 promises for a better tomorrow, 143 soldiers who would not return
home.
James and Nessa left the isle the next morning. The two were ready to experience whatever
adventures lie ahead.
They would never return to the island. Postcards would occasionally arrive at the bar and one
of the isle’s occupants would nail it to the northern wall beside the window. Each card came from a
different country–England, France, Germany, Mexico, Portugal–and separated by various lengths
in time.
Locals would enter the aging bar to find hope. The success of Nessa and James became a
bedside story for children. Theirs was a tale that began in one of history’s darkest times and
somehow it emerged as a blossom in the spring. The success of the two brought forth a vicarious
pride; the postcards a monument dedicated to preserving hope.
The last postcard came on a humid August afternoon, decades after James and Nessa had left,
and on it was a picture of an older couple surrounded by a large family, and on the bottom of the
picture was a single word: Happy.