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Christine Dwyer Hickey Wins Writing.ie Short Story of the Year

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Article by Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin © 29 November 2017 .
Posted in the Magazine ( · News for Writers ).
Huge congratulations to Christine Dwyer Hickey who has won the 2017 Writing.ie Short Story of the Year! Scroll down to read her story ‘Back to Bones.’
Christine Dwyer Hickey has published seven novels, one short story collection and a full length play. The Cold Eye of Heaven won The Kerrygroup Irish Novel of the Year 2012 and was nominated for the International IMPAC award. Her novel Tatty was nominated for The Orange Prize and was listed as one of the 50 Irish Novels of the Decade. Last Train from Liguria was nominated for the Prix L’Européen de Littérature. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines world wide and have won several awards. The story Back to Bones was longlisted for The Sunday Times EFG competition 2017. Her play Snow Angels premiered at the Project Arts Centre in 2014. She has just completed her eighth novel. Her work has been widely translated. She is a member of Aosdana.
Back To Bones by Christine Dwyer Hickey
Longlisted for EFG/Sunday Times Award and published on their website
(Photo by Deirdre Power)
One morning she opened the bedroom curtains and found the tree waiting, long dainty fingers held up for inspection – oohhhh look at me I’ve got buds – and about to turn her back on it, when the day caught her eye: the awakening back garden; the view down the slope and over the wall to Stranraer Parade, beyond that again to the Loch where the pearly haze of winter had finally lifted. So, spring had come then, despite everything.

She watched for a while, the midday ferry shear its way over the loch, passengers on deck with their faces turned sunwards. She could see all the way over to Ireland. Or a mauve rim of Northern Ireland anyhow, from where she had come on a similar day, a long time ago. Shiny new husband a shield to the breeze, one arm haltered about her neck, the other pointing out the this and that of his Scottish childhood.

He’d been worried that she would regret the decision, that she would be homesick – for what exactly? A neurotic Belfast, air charged with suspicion and fear – of people and bags and sudden noise in the street? Her own home then – with its brown stuffy rooms filled with that awful soupy light no matter the weather or time of day with her mother and father quietly simmering away inside it.

 

She tried to recall the winter just gone. November was missing, December was vague. There had been Christmas of course – Christmas with Ruth. A weepy Ruthie in her sturdy Edinburgh house, cautiously decorated. ‘You don’t think Daddy would mind?’ she’d asked more than enough times, ‘you don’t think he’d find it disrespectful?’

‘It’s only a few old Christmas baubles Ruthie.’

‘Poor Daddy. Poor, poor Daddy. To think he was here last Christmas, sipping his brandy, watching t.v. sitting on that very chair.’

A full week, there’d been of that: comforting, consoling, fluffing tissues out of a box fluffing out the same few sentences while she’d been at it. ‘I know my darling, I know, but your father had a good life.  He went the way he would have wanted to go – quick and clean, and on the golf course.

Ruth like a child – a forty-five year old child with no child of her own, no reason to pretend to be strong. And so she had been left to play mother. And why not – she was, after all, Ruth’s mother. But the truth was she’d had enough of all that mothering business.Years and years of it. Max and Ruth barely left home when her husband had stepped into their place with his blood pressure pills and his cholesterol ratings and that hiatal hernia for God’s sake, like a spoilt family pet requiring constant attention and discussion. All those years of fussing and…

‘I did not want to nag,’ she said aloud. ‘I never wanted that.’

Her voice in the silent house, an embarrassement.

 

A long day ahead of her. She considered getting back into bed, turning the television on and pretending that night had already come. The nights were so much easier to manage; it was the empty daytime house that got to her. The unused rooms, the lack of routine or some sort of formality – a set table in the evenings, scrambled eggs and newspapers in the sun-room on Sunday morning. Who cared about all that fuss now? Lately, she’d taken to going to bed after the six o’clock news: crossword, library book, flask of hot tea. The television had become her companion, turning it on and losing herself in someone else’s drama, drifting in and out of sleep, while it took over and sucked up the hours.

She forced herself out of the room, wandered through the house for a bit, looking in doorways, before slipping out to the back garden. She walked the pebbled edges of the lawn before crossing it at a diagonal. She did that again. When she turned at the bottom of the garden, she stopped to study the rear view of the house. How odd it looked. Three upstairs windows – two small, one large. A clumsy black pipe tilted up the middle. The largest window was opened and she could see the pale green lining on the back of a curtain and, where the breeze had given it a twist, the darker green pattern of the curtain itself.  But curtains were all wrong. She felt she’d never seen them before. The windows too, the pipe-work. Everything was unrecognisable. For a moment she thought she had wandered into a neighbour’s garden and that she was looking up at the wrong house. But everything else in the garden was familiar: the bench and the cast-iron bird table filled with old leaves. It was the rear of the house that she didn’t recognise – that window, those curtains and whatever lay behind them. A bedroom – her bedroom, surely, it would have to be?

She could feel herself slipping. Her body was too light, her heart too large. She had lost the bedroom. She had lost the furniture within it and now she was losing herself.

She crossed to the tree and sat on the damp garden bench. Breathe, she told herself, come on now breathe. Breathe long and deep. Head to chest, breathe now. Breathe. That’s it. Gone. After a moment, she lifted her head to a pigeon twitching on the garden wall, an empty flower pot rolling on its side, and the cold, clammy ground under her slippered feet.

 

Back in the bedroom she placed her hands on the green curtains. The curtains were new. Of course. The material bought in the January sales in Ayr after the Christmas visit to Ruthie. A woman called Mrs Munty had made them up; there had been a wait of six weeks. A tiny button-bed house on the far side of Cairnryan. They had cost a fortune, and she could remember thinking as she’d signed the cheque, surely a woman who charged so much, could afford to live in a better house?

That was the curtains this was her bedroom. Everything back in place. Grief. That’s all it had been. Impish fingers reaching inside her, pulling at her memory. Grief, the insidious bastard.

***

More than once, she had asked Ruth, ‘He won’t be home then in time for Christmas dinner, your husband, I mean?’

‘I told you Mummy, he’s not due till Boxing Day.’  Impatience in her voice. I told you Mummy.

‘Oh yes, so you did.’

 

Photographs of him all along Ruth’s mantlepiece. Two of them taken in a desert somewhere. She hadn’t recognised him at first, surrounded by sand and soldiers, his big sunburnt forehead bulbing out from a receding hairline. He was a doctor of course, a military doctor serving overseas. On Christmas Eve Ruth had given her a tour of the photographs, then she had taken down a group-shot of her wedding, pointing out all the little faces. How many years ago had that been – fifteen? More? And five guests already dead. How many more, she had wondered before she too, could call it a day?

She remembered the wedding with fondness though; all the men in their kilts. And the way they had danced! The boyish vigour. Light of foot and the sway of cloth at their backsides; speed liquifying the colours. One young man had nearly torn her arms out of their sockets as he whirled her through the Dashing White Sergeant.

And Ruthie’s new husband with such a sprout of gingery hair. Where had all that gone to?

She had called him Max by mistake.

‘He is not Max, Mummy. Max is your son, he lives in New York – remember?’

All day Christmas day, she had wanted to say it. ‘It’s too much, just the two of us, alone in this dolly house for our first lonely Christmas, and the weather so bad, we can’t even go out.’

All day long, she’d wanted to say it: ‘Oh stop it, will you? Stop that bloody crying. No wonder I keep getting confused. And that calling me Mummy. You’re too old to keep calling me Mummy.’

 

Ruth’s husband – Duggie? Doug, Douglas – had stopped her on the stairs the night he arrived home. ‘And what about you?’ he’d asked, ‘how are you holding up?

‘I am so angry,’ she’d heard herself say

‘Angry?’

‘Hungry. I meant to say, I am so hungry.’

And she’d had to go back downstairs to the kitchen with him while he first made and then watched her eat, a sandwich stuffed up with cold bits of leftover meat.

 

When she arrived back home there was Mrs McKintosh next door, trimming hedges at the garden gate and no way of weasling by her. It made her feel guilty whenever she spoke to her elderly neighbour – the fact that her husband had died at only sixty-nine when Mr McKintosh was well over eighty; his wife tipping seventy-nine. It had felt like shoddy housekeeping somehow.

‘You didn’t stay for Hogmany then?’

‘No, I thought, let them have their New Year to themselves.’

‘But you can come to our party now? Och, do, just for a wee while anyhow, it’ll do you good. I’ll not take no for an answer.’

 

Another blur. Faces of neighbours and London visitors. A boy of eight or nine, a brat who took over the whole affair. I want, I want, I want.

His sister kneeling on the floor, playing a fussy little girl’s game. She had reminded her of Ruthie at that age, a finicky child, everything just so (the way she would use a ruler to make sure her knee socks were on straight!). Even into adulthood, she approached her life in the same fastidious way: her house, her job, her organic food. And now, even her grief.

She had reached out to the child playing under the tree.

‘Are you enjoying the party?’ she asked.

The child had said nothing, only the faintest blink of eyelid indicated that she’d heard the remark at all. Shy, she had thought. Shy, just like Ruth had been at that age. She leaned in again – ‘Did you get that dolly for Christmas?’

This time the child had thrown her a look and drawing her toys closer to her, had moved away, edging along on her knees until she was facing the other way.

She’d been stung by the blatant rejection. Worse – she had felt the overpowering urge to slap the child, to call her a name. Slap! She could hear the sound of it in her head, could imagine herself saying, ‘How dare you? How dare you -you bad-mannered wee bitch.’

She’d been shocked by the force of the words in her throat, had stood up abruptly to stop them from rushing out. ‘Max, you see,’ she announced a little too loudly, ‘Max will be calling from New York and…’

Was that relief she had seen in the McKintoshs’ eyes as they both undertook to escort her to the door a little too keenly, almost as if they were afraid she might change her mind and stay?

Not that she had blamed them, who would want death and grief sitting on their sofa on New Year’s Eve?

 

Later, lying in bed, she had listened to the tittering little groups move house to house along the Parade; singing voices loosened by whiskey, the clinking of bottles. And she had remembered the first year she’d been here, how astonished she’d been by the New Year’s Eve custom of leaving your door open; neighbours walking in and out, free for all. The trust. Imagine doing that in Belfast! And the name they gave it: first footing, how she had loved the sound of that.

 

On New Year’s Day she had woken up angry. Seething and spoiling for a fight – if only there had been anyone to fight with. She had lain there fuming at the thoughts of the McKintosh party and the spoilt brat boy swinging out of his mother and the girl who had reminded her of Ruthie and Ruthie herself who was behaving as if she was the only one to ever lose anyone with her big baldy husband who thought he knew everything everything just because he was a bloody doctor and what sort of a doctor was he anyhow aiding soldiers who were trained to kill and be killed patching them up and sending them back out to do it all over again where did the Hippocratic oath come into that scenario would someone mind telling her oh but that was men for you all over and all the bloody same stupid and stubborn and literally prepared to die rather than let their precious pals down even Max – Max! Couldn’t wait to get off the phone last night so he could get back to his party selfish just like his father had been whose name she couldn’t bear to utter and whose face she couldn’t look at in a photograph or even when it appeared in a dream, pushing it right out in her sleep because she had told him and she had warned him and she had said it over and over that his colour was too high and that his breathing was too short and she had asked and almost begged would he not get his pressure checked and how long would it have taken him to pop into the pharmacy how long? Five bloody but no, the selfish bastard could only think of the golf could not keep his friends waiting and so he died without her having looked at his face as he cheerioed her from the hall and see where that had got him instead of spending the last day of October wondering what to bring to New York where they had planned on spending Christmas with Max and his beautiful Indian wife and their first grandchild who he’d never even seen, they were lowering him into a grave on the side of a God foresaken hill with the cold wind belting her in the face and now it was New Year’s day and he would be well on his way back to bones. Nothing but bones.

She sat up in the bed and screamed at the wall. ‘Happy now? Happy now? You stupid, stupid bastard.’

 

January hours, one by one. February had seemed just as long. She cleaned the house. Sometimes she drove to a supermarket in another town in order to avoid the neighbours. For the same reason, she chose not to go out walking unless the weather was bad. Returning then, in sodden clothes, she often wouldn’t recall how long she’d been out or where she had been to apart from a vague memory of whipping rain and the whiff of sewage at low tide, and the sight of a few fat puffins stupidly waddling through rags of black seaweed.

But now it was spring. And the weather would continue to improve and dogs that had grown fat through winter, would re-emerge on the end of their owners’ leads. She would be stopped and pitied, just as she had stopped and pitied others before her. There would be a risk of breaking down in front of someone she hardly knew. Well, she was sick of Grief now; sick and tired of it. She would no longer stand still and wait for it to pounce and have its way with her. Nor would she wait for the tree outside her window to pop its blossoms and then watch again, as the blossoms gave way to leaves that went on to wither and fall, reminding her of how it all worked: Death, death, death. Life, life, life. Death. Life. Death. Round and round like a twisted carousel – except in her case, there would only be one turn round and then she would simply drop off and disappear.

 

When Max called, it was dark outside, the lights from the last ferry jigging into the harbour, her face, a stain on the glass of the sitting-room window.

She barely gave him time to say hello.

‘I’d like to come on a visit, I was thinking Max. A long visit I mean, more than just a couple of weeks anyhow. I’d like a chance to get to know my grandchild and your wife of course, I’d really like that.’

‘Well, yes of course,’ Max said, ‘But I thought you were going to Belfast?’

Belfast? Why in the name of God, would I want to do that?’

‘To visit your sisters? That’s what Ruth said.’

‘And what would I do there? Sit in the suburbs listening to old women talk. Going over the past. Over and over, the same old ground. Who did what to whom forty years ago.I want to see the baby.I want something new Max, I want. Life, I need life’.

 

She put her hand over her mouth. He would think her unhinged, overwrought, or at best needy. He was probably imagining her alone in the house, trying to cope with the garden and the winter mice.

‘It’s cold over here, you know, much colder than you might think.’

‘As if I’m not used to the cold!’ she said, ‘oh never mind, it was just an idea. Well, goodbye son.’

‘No, no, wait, Mum. Wait. As it happens, we are having trouble finding decent child care. You could help look after the baby for a while. We have a woman who comes in, a sort of cleaner, but she’s not much of a baby person. Azura’s dress shop closes on Monday, so you’d have the day off. Some days I correct papers from home so I could give you a hand. And you’d have your weekends of course.’

 

She behaved as if it had all been his idea: ‘Look after the baby, you say? Well, yes I could do that, I suppose. So that would be four days a week, you mean? Well, I don’t see why not. I’m sure I could manage that. Of course I could.’

***

And so she found herself living without a garden, a little too close to the sky, in a building that made reminded her of a cinema she’d frequented as a child, with a canopy leading into the entrance and always the uniformed doorman outside.

In the elevator she bunched in with her new neighbours; she tasted their perfume and aftershave, their minty morning breath. She watched them slide in and out of yellow taxis or cross the lobby with frames of collapsable bicycles hoisted on one shoulder, as if they were going to work in a circus. The faces smiled at her, sometimes they said hello, yet she rarely seemed to see the same face twice and had to wonder just how many people were living in this building that must surely be the size of a small Scottish town.

In the mornings, she wheeled the baby round Central Park where she occasionally lost her sense of place. She could be anywhere then – a forest on the Cowal Peninsula or on a ramble through the Ayrshire countryside – until a sudden skyscraper loomed through the trees and stopped her in her tracks: ‘I’m in New York,’ she would then whisper into the chilly air, ‘imagine – me living in New York.

Early days and cushions of snow still clinging to the ground; the yellow noses of crocuses nuzzling through. She lifted the baby out of his pram and pointed them out. ‘See over there? The wee chicks peeping out at you. Oh do you see them now – look, over there.’

The baby was quite an armful, puffed up in his quilted suit; he was brown and beautiful just like his mother but in his dark eyes, she recognised a glint that had been in the eyes of her husband. The baby reached out to the crocuses then he cocked her a little smile. A sheer moment of joy when he did that, an unclenching of the heart.

And then, a blast of grief that nearly knocked her off her feet. Brusquely, she returned him to his little nest and patted the covers around him. Then she started to walk. She walked long and fast, driving the wheels into the ground, pushing on and on, until the cold turned her face and her arms and then her whole head numb, and she could feel nothing much at all.

***

Too many names. Too many names beginning with A.

Aslan was the name of the baby. She had known this even before her husband had died. The two of them standing at the phone in the middle of a September night while Max’s trembling voice told them their grandson had arrived. She’d been the one holding the phone and trying not to weep for joy had said, ‘Well now! And tell me, does this grandson of mine have a name?’

‘Aslan.’ Max had said.

‘What did you say?’

‘Aslan. It means lion.’

‘Lion?’

‘It’s an Indian name, Parsi.’

‘Is it really?’

‘It’s an old family name.’

Not our family, she had thought, but mananged not to say.

 

The housekeeper’s name was Analyn.

A slight, sharp-elbowed woman from the Phillipines who made it clear, without saying a word that the housework was her territory and trespassers would be shot. You could hear her tutting as she went about her cleaning, her face hard and sour. Unless Max happened to be in the apartment, in which case she was all sweetness and light and somewhat alarmingly giggly.

Her daughter-in-law was Azura.

A passing vision of blue-black hair and spanking white teeth on the way to or from – the dress shop, the dance class, the gym. Azura seemed to get a little thinner each week whereas Max? Well, Max was definitely going in the opposite direction.

 

On evenings when Max finished up early, he would sit on the floor and play with the baby while she sat behind him on the settee, their conversation sporadic and undemanding. Max was hers and of her family. Still waters, prone to brooding, lock it all up in a drawer. Ruth and her father, extroverts both, had been cut from a different landscape.

‘Azura, that’s a nice name,’ she said, ‘and what does it mean?’

‘Blue,’he said, ‘like the colour.’

‘Well, I hardly thought her parents had called her after a mood,’ she said and Max had almost smiled.

 

Aslan, Analyn, Azura.

***

She felt the days slide off the weeks and the weeks disintegrate under her feet and the only sense that they had passed at all, was Ruthie on the phone on Saturday evenings.

‘I went to the cemetry today.’ Ruthie said.

‘Did you pet?’

‘I put flowers down. Tidied up a bit. As soon as I get a few days off I’m going to start on the house. It’s very dusty, you know.’

‘Oh I’m sure.’

‘When are you coming home?’

‘What dear?’

‘You can’t stay there forever, you know.’

‘Why- has Max said something?’

‘No, and why would he? A free and full-time nanny. I suppose you’re cooking for them too and babysitting, no doubt? And probably not giving you a penny for your trouble. Max is a lecturer, and as for her family – well, they’re pure loaded. But he was always a bit that way inclined if you ask me, stitched pockets…’

‘Ruth! Such unkind talk, it’s not like you.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Ruth said, and began to cry ‘I just don’t want you to be wearing out…

‘What – my welcome?’

‘Yourself, I was going to say. Yourself.’

 

Saturday nights she usually babysat. Sundays, Max took them out for brunch to a restaurant with bare brick walls where he ate like an American horse from a heap of American food while his wife fiddled about with an omelette that appeared to be missing its yolks, and the baby sat up in his high-chair like a small sun-god on his throne.

On Mondays, she sometimes had her hair done and once she took the subway to Brooklyn and looked at New York from the opposite side. Occasionally she cooked Max a meal from his childhhood. Mostly though, she stayed in her room.

She looked out huge windows that couldn’t be opened: from the sitting-room, a blurred line of Central Park treetops and pieces of steel grey sky. From the night-time kitchen window, a caged-in sport’s ground, where men with vast shoulders and bandy legs, trundled in and out of a blast of white light.

And from her bedroom, the windowless profile of a grim office building across a shaded street.

***

The weather began to soften, the lilacs came into the park pushing out their slightly indecent scent. The baby expanded out of his pram and into his buggy – or stroller as she had learned to call it. Before she knew it, she was feeding him pureéd fruit from a crooked spoon on a bench by the bronze angel’s fountain.

She brought her grandson to Macy’s and bought him a little sun hat. She brought him to Macy’s another day and bought him a pair of striped socks. She sat in a small shaded park nearby and listened to people talk. They talked down phones and they talked to one another. They talked about sports and politics, they talked about work and family sometimes they even talked about love. Mostly though, they talked about money.

Outside the big library she held the baby aloft and showed him to the big stone lions. Inside a toy shop, she brought a small furry lion cub and wagged it under his chin. ‘This is your namesake,’ she told him, ‘yes it is, yes, it is, yes it is.’

 

The days so hot now, the air felt as if it was tightening around her. Grand Central Station became her oasis. It was easy to change the baby there and she could always find a place to sit down. She liked the underground coolness, the purring echoes of sound. She liked standing in line outside the ladies restroom, watching the spurt of people pass by and the seaside smell of long ago holidays that came winding out of the Oyster Bar.

The baby cooed up to strangers. Strangers leaned down and plucked his cheek.

‘This is my grandson,’ she said and always quickly added, ‘my son is his father; his other grandmother you see, is from India.’

She wanted it known that this child may look nothing like her, but he was still her flesh, blood and bones.

***

Ruthie again on the Saturday phone.

‘I’m calling from the house.’

‘The house?’

Your house Mummy – if you remember it at all?’

‘Not really.’

‘The place is in a dreadful state.’

‘You don’t say.’

‘There’s damp on the kitchen and bathroom walls and rust on the bath from a leaky tap. The dust! And as for the garden – well, I don’t know what the McKintoshes must think.’

‘The Mackintoshes?’

‘Daddy loved this house, you know.’

‘I know Ruthie, why do you think I stayed there all those years? It was always your father’s house. Your father’s garden. Your father’s town….’

‘You could always sell it you know. Buy a nice little place for yourself. Somewhere more manageable. Near me. I could keep an eye on you.’

‘I have to go now, I’m sorry.The baby’s crying, I’ll call you back as soon as I can.’

‘Let Max see to him …’

‘He’s not here.’

‘But he must be there, he answered the phone, I’ve just been talking to him.’

‘He’s popped out for a few minutes,’ she said, then hung up and turned the switch to silent.

***

She had a row with a sales assistant in Macy’s one morning, and shaking with rage had come back out on the street. The impudence of the girl, leaving her standing like a fool at the counter while she chatted on the phone to her friend about the sort of weekend she’d had. In the end she’d had to raise her voice and call for attention. ‘Excuse me…’ she had said, the girl turning one shoulder towards her.

And then, ‘Excuse me, if you don’t mind? Excuse me. Do you expect me to stand here all day!?’

In the end she had flung the teeshirt down on the counter and told the girl to stick it.

 

As she waited to cross at Herald Square, she continued the argument in her head, rearranging it to her own satisfaction. In this new version, she had remained calm, the manager had arrived and the girl, bug-eyed, had been left to watch her job hang on by the fingernails. By the time she reached the other side of the street, she was beginning to feel uneasy – as if it was she, and not the girl, who had been in the wrong. She remembered two customers looking at her, as she’d stood muttering to herself at the counter, and others too, at nearby display tables, had lifted their heads when she’d shouted at the girl. But she had been right to do so – of course she’d been right. In fact, now that she thought of it, the service in Macy’s was a general disgrace. She had a good mind to write a letter to…to someone, and say so.

 

She continued walking, taking a left and then right, and still the feeling of guilt was there and now something else: a sense of dread growing hard in her stomach.

It was the lunch hour and the sidewalk was crowded: men in shirtsleeves, girls in sleeveless dresses. Ahead of her a tall, black man in a full length saffron robe, was pulling a shopping trolley behind him loaded with imitation designer handbags. She followed his footsteps, the waft of plastic coming at her along with the smell of petrol, hot air and cheap cooking fumes.

A little way ahead she noticed the crowd stalling for a moment or so, before loosening out and moving off again. As she approached, a man’s voice began to come through – a voice that was strong rather than loud. It spoke in a measured, reasoning tone: ‘Say, could you help me out here please? Please, could someone help me out just a little?’

As she came up beside him, she saw the voice belonged to a man in a wheelchair. He had parked himself in the middle of the sidewalk so that people had to move around him. A big man with a full beard. His shoulders were broad and she knew by the way he sat with his knees quite close to his chest that his height would be considerable, were he able to stand up. He wore a padded coat with a fur-lined hood attached to it. And there he was like some sort of a monument, while the lunchtime pedestrians in their light summer clothes, were left to edge around him.

He didn’t notice her as she passed right by, his hand held out to more likely targets. She moved on for a few steps and then stopped. When she looked back in his direction the crowd behind her had already folded in on him, blocking the view. She could still hear his voice though.  ‘Say, could you help me out here please? Please, just a little?’

She opened her purse and pushed her way back to him. There, she pressed a twenty dollar bill into his hand. He winced, as if she had pinched him. Then he looked straight at her and opened his mouth to speak. She pushed back through the crowd.

She could hear him calling out after her, ‘God bless you Ma’am. God bless you!’

 

Her mind was full of him all the way to Grand Central. She wondered who he was and how he had ended up in this place, begging from a wheelchair. She felt certain that he was not from this city – a farmer’s son more like, or a small town boy, whose life had turned against him. The way his large hand had accepted the money, the shy, gentle way he had looked at her and his blessing following her down the street.

Near the entrance to the terminal, a pair of young Jewish men sat behind a desk handing out holy cards. She reached out and accepted one, thanking the giver warmly, as if it had been a personal gift. She was filled with gratitude and a sense of well-being as she entered the station. The streels of light coming down from the windows, the smell of coffee and engines, everything she looked upon, everything she heard, added to this feeling.

She wanted to think about the man. To decide whether or not, she should go back to see him again, maybe strike up a conversation. They would have so much in common, she was sure of that. There would be a connection. She would feed and change the baby, sit on a bench and think about it all in peace.

 

She put one foot on the escalator, one hand on the rail and the other hand in her pocket. Everything went suddenly quiet. She stared down at the steel stairs as they silently churned away from her toward and then, into the ground. Her mind turned white. Her hands had begun to shake. The baby.

The baby. The baby. Where had she left the baby? Oh Jesus, Oh Christ, the baby. Her feet stumbled off the last step of the escalator, she staggered a little, and then felt the smack of one knee, as it hit the ground.

Two women standing over her; their voices barely audible, as if they were speaking from under the water.

‘You okay honey? Are you okay?’

She nodded her head and kept nodding her head as the women took one arm each and helped her to stand, then she followed their lead to a bench.

‘You sure you’re okay? Would you like us to call someone? Well, if you’re sure you’re okay. If you’re sure…’

And then they were gone.

 

She stayed on the bench and begged his little face to come into her head. If she could remember his face, she might remember when and where she had last seen it. But she could only find the Jewish boy with his beige sombre face under a black hat and the two long braids dangling on each side of it. There was the benign face of the man in the wheelchair, the scowl of the sales girl in Macy’s, there was the doorman in the apartment building with the long jaw, telling her ‘you have a nice day now.’

His name then. If she could remember the baby’s name, she could tell a policeman. If she could remember his name, she might remember her address and if she could remember her address…

She knuckled the side of her head and then began pulling and pinching at her numb face. Think, she told herself, you’re not thinking, you’re not thinking. But her mind remained dark and the silence, solid as concrete.

 

She covered her face with her hands and sat for a long time. She sat until she noticed the sounds around her were beginning to come back. A chaos of voices and footsteps. Behind that, the amplified sing-song announcements. Nearby laughter and the chattering voices of Chinese schoolgirls. Beside her, the crackle of a newspaper. She released her face from her hands. There was a man sitting on the bench, holding the paper open between his hands. She heard herself mumble at him.

‘Excuse me?’ the man said, frowning.

‘What? What? What?’ she said.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get…’

‘Day? Day?’

‘Day?’

‘Yes, Day. Which one?’ she said, raising her voice.

‘Which…?’ the man said, his frown getting a little deeper.

‘Monday, is it Monday? I’m asking you a question, why can’t you just answer it?’

She made to snatch at the paper.

‘Chrissake,’ the man said, pulling it away from her. ‘It’s Monday, it’s Monday.’

Then he closed the paper, rolled it under his arm, stood up and walked away.

 

Monday. Of course, of course. Monday. She hadn’t lost the baby at all. The baby was not with her. Because it was Monday. He was with his mother. Monday was Mommy Day. The dress shop was closed. Her day off was, thank God, thank God, Monday.

A rush of elation spread right through her, lasted a few seconds, and then suddenly fell away.

 

She found her way to the Ladies room; washed her face, combed her hair, rubbed her lips on a stick of lipstick without looking at the woman in the mirror. Then she came out and began to walk. She could feel a sharp stinging in her knee now, a stiffness when she moved it. She went up one escalator and came down another; she passed through the shopping gallery pausing at windows. Here and there she sat down on a bench. She did a tour of the main concourse, limping along, stopping whenever something caught her eye. She stood at all sides of a four-sided clock and studied each one of its faces.

At the top of a marble stairway, she leaned over a balustrade. She saw hundreds of faces moving below her, in a stop-and-start diagonal formation. Faces she felt she knew but couldn’t say how. Faces that could be from television shows or newspaper photographs; faces she may have known as a child or that belonged in some way to her past. Faces too, that belonged to a much, much older time.

She noticed the rods of light from the high-up windows beginning to weaken. She waited until the windows themselves turned black on the outside then slowly she began to come down the marble stairs.

She felt a blast of cold air on the back of her neck, then a force like an ocean wave, beginning to gather.

(c) Christine Dwyer Hickey


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