Asher, A Fictional Biography
Asher Witham is a master at second chances. Born to poverty in a cottage on the upper slopes above Belfast, he becomes rich as a portrait painter for the wealthy despite enduring more than one man’s share of sadness, hate, and violence. His hands are smashed almost beyond recognition, yet he struggles to achieve renewed control of a paintbrush. Shot in the back, he refuses to die. His home is burned, but he will not be downed by his enemies.
Against the backdrop of troubled northern Ireland at the turn of the last century, Asher is haunted by continued hatred but determined not only to paint his pictures but to help others lead worthwhile lives. He believes in the goodness of people when they are given a second chance. Women vie for his attention and his love, but when the one woman he desires is denied to him by class prejudice, will he ever win a second chance with her?
There were diverse stories which circulated later, but only the truth avoided the telling concerning the riots of 1886. The Catholic march went on its way relatively unscathed, but the mainly Catholic Irish constabulary, that which had replaced the Belfast police force, still smarting from the Home Rule defeat, turned on the Protestant marchers, and a pitched battle ensued. Injuries were severe on both sides, but fatalities were only reported among the marchers. Many of the injured were transported to the Fever Hospital in carts and hansom cabs, while injured constables were ferried to the Maternity Hospital on the lower Crumlin Road.
Asher exited from Elmwood Street onto the Lisburn Road, a much busier byway than the Malone Road. The hospital building and grounds registered only peripherally in his awareness because Maisie Witham was standing forlornly on the opposite pavement. He dodged quickly around a few cabs, carts, and treadle bicycles and reached her side in seconds. Out of red and puffy eyes she looked at his face for a split second, and threw her arms around him.
“Ma, what’re ye doin’ out here? Why aren’t ye with Da?”
She released her grip, still sobbing. “Asher, the doctors and nurses did all they could, but he was too far gone to the Lord by the time they brought him here. Yer da left the world durin’ the night without ever wakin’ up since he was struck.”
His legs threatened to buckle, and tears stung his eyes. His speech was choked and broken. The one who had guided his way, been a friend, a protector, and an example, was gone. He spoke softly, in a near whisper, “Is he still in there?” He pointed toward the hospital.
She laid a hand on his arm. “His earthly remains are being taken to a funeral parlour on the upper portion of the Shankill. I’ll organise the laying down to rest with whoever is overseeing the graveyard up there. I hate to have to do this, but it’s important that ye return to yer home for a while to help me with the childer when I’m off organising the funeral service and burial.” She began weeping again, and he wrapped her in his arms. People passing paid them no mind. Belfastians were well used to sadness and death, given the trials and tribulations of violent upheaval, famine, and disease which had been visited on the populace over the course of the eighteenth century, and the fact that they were standing outside a fever hospital merely underlined the obvious.
Asher escorted his mother back to the house on the Malone Road. Mr. Creighton had already departed for a meeting with William Pirrie. Asher introduced Maisie to the lady of the house and, over a pot of tea, explained his dilemma.
“What you were about to undertake here, Asher, is of menial importance when compared to family love and loyalty. Your future will still be waiting here, undisturbed, when you are sure your mother and siblings are secure in life. You are a boy approaching manhood but, when or if you return here, I suspect you will be a man looking back at the boy you were.” Hermione spoke softly and compassionately.
While Asher went aloft to pack his meagre belongings, Hermione tried to show some measure of comfort to his mother. Miss Haldane entered his bedroom through the open doorway as he was buckling his weatherbeaten case. She spoke as sternly as she had throughout their short acquaintance. “Master Witham, my deepest sympathy goes to you and your mother. No one should find themselves in such a predicament. You, I judge, are a gentle, somewhat sheltered being and should not involve yourself in all the evil that goes on around us. God speed.” She stepped out before he could thank her.
He descended the stairs to where his mother and the lady of the house awaited in the entry hall. Through the open door and down the steps, he could see a hansom cab standing at the roadside. “Miss Haldane sent Marylyn to fetch the cab. The driver has been paid. Go with God, both of you, and with my fervent belief that we will see you again, Asher.” Hermione stepped forward and kissed his lips lightly before sharing an embrace with Maisie.
He heard his mother whisper her thanks in Hermione’s ear. When they walked through the door, into the late morning drizzle, Asher was thinking that, in the space of two days, his life had changed and changed back again, except this time he was fatherless, jobless, and dejected.