Writing.ie Short Story of the Year – Voting Now Closed
Note – Voting Now Closed
We are delighted to reveal the six authors shortlisted for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2017. Judges Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin City of Literature, Simon Trewin, Literary Agent with WME London and Bob Johnston the force behind the award winning Gutter Bookshop, had a very tough job deciding on the six stories that would go through to the public vote.
The final six authors and their stories are:
The Boat – John Connell
Once We San Like Other Men – John MacKenna
The Women with the Fish – Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Robbie Brady’s Amazing Late Goal – Sally Rooney
Read and Vote!
The winner of the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year will be decided by a public vote, so please read the stories below and visit http://www.irishbookawards.irish/ to vote on your favourite.
The winners will be announced at the Gala Dinner and Awards ceremony on 28th November which will be televised on RTE 1. Follow the news via twitter @BGEIBAS.
Here are our six shortlisted stories:
There are days when I crumple on the couch giving in to endless interlude, boom-box of Jeremy Kyle, mini flask of vodka, crows crying their lamps out in the chest-hair back garden. Slow Joe next door moving his furniture around to nothing but his own sound. Eventually I’ll squirm up to bed when I know I’ve successfully folded enough hours of the day into the next so that neither is in much of a shape to be useful. Even then I cannot escape the watching. That his eyes are stuck on me and me alone, I am completely sure. That she is unable or unwelcome to come through at all, I am also completely sure. From his hospital bed he seemingly figured it all out. ‘Here ye go Frank, have some nice yoghurt, c’mon now, try to eat a little something …’ The mind is a peculiar thing, the nursing manager told us. He seemed to know we were doing up some of the rooms, I told her, he said so. He said he could see it in his mind’s eye. ‘That’s impossible,’ she replied. ‘He might’ve heard one of the carers talking about renovating a house or something along those lines. If you think of it a bit like the way magpies work … on clear days when the blood flows normally, they snatch bits and bobs of other people’s reality, processing it as their own.’
I always had a strange relationship with this house. When I left for university in London twenty-five years ago, I was plagued with memories of levitating in the sitting room as a small child. When I returned to Dublin on holidays my mother wrote it off, sniggering – oh my daft daughter! – but he didn’t. ‘I used to do that in digs years ago, down the quays,’ he told me. Levitate after concentrating like mad. Best done standing upright with your fists clenched by your side, head up, breathing deep. Think your way through the weight of human rubbish, out the lid on the other side, slowly ascending. Think yourself into light-footed, sheer, insubstantial. ‘If you lose confidence even for a second, that’s you,’ he explained. ‘You’d be right back on dry land again. Sometimes it might only be an inch or two you’d go but what of it. Other times you could go high into a dusty corner of the room no bother.’ One night after his roommate caught him the ‘old bag’ who ran the boarding house called in a priest to ceremoniously bash and threaten with stern words. The priest, when he realised my father was a mossback atheist, called in a mutton-faced Guard and the Guard called in a Doctor of Psychology after he demanded to know what the exact charge was. In 1950s Ireland it was put down to a physical malaise caused by communist blathering. They backed off with a polite warning. He was a civil servant by then; that particular type tended to get away with a lot.
My brother Arnold, six years older than me, remembers Top of the Pops posters falling from the four walls in the back bedroom when he stared into the old grotty dressing table mirror. The same dressing table that recently got an upcycle by Annie Sloan chalk paint that transforms any surface without the need for undercoats and such. Myself and a teenage pal Geraldine used to sit drinking cider and smoking dope in that mirror until she eventually got the creeps sufficient and wouldn’t come to our house anymore. Another brother, Paul, went clear mad in that room. Ran off to the British Army and got caught up in the Falklands – not actually fighting – but overseeing penguins and derelict army buildings when everyone else scarpered. He put a £90,000 bet on a horse and flung himself out a B&B window in Warwick after they paid to get rid of him. My mother invited him home to rest it out but he stayed five years and turned mustard yellow in the room. He eventually died giving himself over to numerous medical trials to feed his gambling habit. He always said he saw faces and not just in the dead leg of night. Mean wizened women’s faces, out of holy nowhere, in the glass panel of the kitchen door leading out into the back garden. There were so many rumours about the clump of houses (not just ours) not far from the old walls of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. In Irish: Glas Naíon, meaning ‘stream of the infants’. A stream infected with famine-time cholera from sinking bodies in the nearby crater of graveyard. That was one theory for some residents going a bit plinky-plonky. Ley lines, lead pipes, electrical brain teasers from mobile phone masts. Nothing was ever proven.
It was a sky-drenched night in November sometime in the late 1970s when Frank came home with chicken balls from the Chinese. He was pissed out of his brains as usual. From the crimped lace curtains draped across the sitting room window I saw him crawl on his blue-gout hands and gabardine knees from the Datsun Sunny, unable to walk upright on two legs. The takeaway stuck to his teeth like a Residents’ Association Annual Dinner doggy bag. There’d been rumpus of a dog with rabies scaring women and children outside Our Lady of Dolours Church. Aulones hen-huddling around laminated posters of a neon thermometer advertising the advantages of the Billings Method for holy contraception, paying attention to the sensations of sacred vulvas. They talked about the rabid dog with juice spilling from his mouth. At age nine, I thought the dog might be Frank. He was so very angry every evening when he returned home from work. Arnold was in the porch, mop of blonde milling into his young punk girlfriend’s face. ‘Get that slag out of here!’ Frank roared, as the key hunted the bockety lock of the main door, crooked on its cheap wood frame from previous assaults. A favourite trick was to catch one of the sons just as they reached freedom point, banging the growing body he owned up against the glass panels, shouting, ‘Think you’re able to get out of here easily buster!’ I scurried from the sitting room into the cloakroom in the hall, shutting the door tight, lighting my magic candle. The whiff of sulphur from the match a strange comfort. A scuttle of some sort, then a very loud scream. My mother and sister’s voices snaking the air in high venomous pitches. Oh a clump then. Body falling with a thump and thwack. Slush-puppy red blood on the wall, as I’d soon see, being wiped with small yellow sponges by small white hands. Paul’s head split open with a car jack. ‘Go to bed!’ my mother screamed. ‘All of you, get to bed, I’ll deal with this.’
Point is, he was never going to leave the house willingly, even in ancient age. And the house was never going to spew him up willingly either. In reality he had this vulgar indwelling of power despite the whiskey having pinched his mind, his heart, his intellectual abilities, his ambition, his bowels, his bank, his false teeth, his legs. When they first married my mother Emma was his World War II coal queen for sure. The newly built 1950s semi-D had four fireplaces, including one in a double bedroom upstairs for any wife to squeeze babies out in comfort to lay snug in a chest of drawers. No one bought cots in advance then. A mantelpiece adorned with a Padre Pio genuflection, ceramic Holy Mary, broken fire-guard, a photograph of her dead father dancing at a tea party and a Dusty Bin; won in a Blackpool bingo hall in 1981. I was born in this room. Back in the days of pat-a-cake, of hand-jive, when asked that first time she curbed a smile, and ran like mad, in her A-line skirt and Bobby-socks. My father ran after her. All of what you’d expect, naturally. It may have been the dead baby, lifeless in a Clarks’ shoe box on the bedroom floor, that had the final say. Or it may have been nothing peculiar at all. Missed promotion in work, boredom, a stray urge. But sometime in his thirties, he left himself and us behind. Yet we continued to love him despite the emotional violence, the daily drudge, the drinking, the incessant arguing, the drab awful iron-clad impossibility of it all. As you’d expect towards a father or a husband by a certain societal proxy. A hangover from Victorian times, maybe. We loved him because it was required of us. We battled hard to understand why he was always in such intense pain, why he needed to pass on some of that pain so readily to us.
For the last three years, with everyone else gone, he’d wandered into the smelly elderly and utterly struggling pit. Manning the walls all day like a woodturner. Agonising over what we now know were mites of madness softening at the base of his brainstem. He cried out in the Murano glass corridors of sleep and at least a few times a night would clamber into our bedroom, where my mother and I slept after he became properly incontinent. Cumin-coloured puddles on the brown lino in the bathroom, all the way down to the extension where he sometimes relieved himself in a green bucket with a broken lid if he got lost. He’d enquire as to where he was, looking for an explanation for the clatter trap in his head. Kept saying ‘sorry’ for something he was never able to remember having done. ‘I can’t cope with him anymore,’ my mum said. He had dementia. We were exhausted. It seemed no one else out there cared. Our local GP said he no longer made house calls because the HSE wouldn’t pay doctors for such variants of care since the recession. He had to make it to the surgery or rot. Towards the end of two summers ago, maybe in 2013 or thereabouts (it’s hard to recall exactly), I rang social workers attached to the local health board, put a plan in place and that was that. We were not to know what would happen. We had no experience of this kind of thing. Even in retelling the story, I find I’m just as upset and confused as when I lived through it. I cannot be absolutely sure of what occurred, of the timeline, except for the following: the day came. We both said, ‘Be strong, this is it, the only way forward!’ Even as he sat in his wheelchair facing out at the eggy sun for the first time in four years, the house showed signs of a problem. A water tank in the attic, only replaced the previous year, decided to manifest a swollen belly on the toilet ceiling, bursting through its own guts before the lift arrived. A mirror smashed with no window open or air circulating anywhere. The fridge gasped itself to a halt. I looked right at her and said, ‘Don’t even say it! Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be reductive! We’re doing the right thing.’ I felt that the whole point of being here, of being human, was to take responsibility. That’s what we were doing, surely? God knows he couldn’t do it. He was incapable of doing anything. ‘Try to remember that much,’ I said to mum. She suffered hugely through all of this. She had made her bed. She would ‘till Doomsday’ lie on it.
Four days in a row he rang pleading for his life. We told him ‘NO!’ He could stay there for a month and give us time to clean up the house. It smelt like a Berlin urinal. It would have to be fumigated for starters. We would have to organise a new bed. Possibly a downstairs toilet with washing facilities. There might even be a grant available to convert the garage as elections were only around the corner. ‘I can’t cope with this awful place, you’re my wife, please take me home!’ My mother never stood up to him, ever. She tried to poison his stew once, but that was a long time ago. Rummaging around the garage shelves for the black and yellow box. Me in my brown school uniform, cradling her from behind as she stood at the bubbling pot on the free-standing gas cooker caked with dirt, tipping it in like a schitzy witch. ‘You’re in there for respite. I need a rest too,’ she told Frank, slamming the phone down. On Day Three he had a bombastic stroke. On Day Seven we were summoned. ‘He has deteriorated significantly, especially emotionally,’ the nurse said. ‘I’m so sorry, but it could’ve happened anytime, anywhere.’ We didn’t quite know what she meant by that but when we saw him, by Jove we got a shock for sure. We’d traipsed the ward three times before we accepted the sack of crumpled grey maudlin was the same feisty person we left off just the week before. It took three more days and threats of legal action to get him moved from the stinking old TB sanatorium in the park to a proper hospital for the specialist treatment he needed. Do Not Resuscitate, the sign above the bed read. Young slip of a thing from Killiney or somewhere affluent like that said with his age, with his expected quality of life, with the general prognosis (of which they were still not fully certain) there was no point in doing much at all. Just sit it out, wait it out. His life was now a junk shop egg timer. Throat broken. Stomach empty. His head, well, basically in not so many words, it had begun to thoroughly scoff itself. Middle cerebral artery: considerable shrinkage. Clots: many. Brain bleeds: more to be expected. Aspiration pneumonia. Muscle damage. He screamed. Roared. Pegged at us as if he were grabbing on to a half-inflated lifeboat. We should go home and take it handy, try to get on with things. Especially her, his wife, the overseer of his decline. She needed to push ahead, look after herself. Put loose things in perspective. Everyone will get to this point. There’s really little to do when it happens.
That night I woke at 2.23 a.m. I will never forget the exact time because I saw in the pitiful light of the green alarm clock, my father crawling around the wall like a crazed lizard. His body partially flattened with his old navy office clothes flipping and sagging. A much smaller head, but his eyes: a ferocious sickly yellow. His neck bent as if it had been snapped and yanked back into place with a heap of loose skin sewn back on roughly. Flipping and flopping around on top of the Billy bookcases, side to side, like you’d expect to see in the House of Reptiles at Dublin Zoo. The most revolting noise as well. A kind of clacking that didn’t befit his human form. His smaller body thumped along the furniture as if he/it wanted to attack, priming itself for incursion. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Flicked on the bedside lamp. Checked for my mother in the other bed to see if she was still in deep snooze. Her small frame slowly rising and falling back into the pink sheets. I was stuck in the forecourt of some outlandish car wash, with the engine on and no idea where to head to next. I stayed like that for a good hour and the vision of absolute repugnance didn’t falter or fade or go away. I could barely breathe or move, my limbs became sore with fright. I could hear the mechanism in my chest chug out and suck in stale air, but I carried on watching him flip and hurtle and scoot with no sign of halting. Until that bilious moment in time I thought I knew what being on the planet entailed, what it was all about, what I could expect at the worst corners of paranoia or down times. But I knew nothing. It had become rayless in a sore nocturnal second; opaque, obscure.
Just once, a bitsy time in autumn 1982, did he catch hold of the ethereal air balloon and partially rise to the skies. It had been another dreadful week in the house, the first coal fire of late September. In the kitchen we’d placed blue diner chairs around the roasty flickers, toasting slices of Brennan’s bread on long meat forks at the very top of the fire. My sister Lucy started a new job as medical secretary in Doctor Steevens’ Hospital and was home early. Frank was on one of his extended rampages, resuming yesterday’s argument with whoever he could as soon as he demolished through the door, carrying it on into tomorrow, leading back into today. The rule of thumb was to stay still and silent when the key clicked. To see. To see if the coat would be thrown off and deposited at the end of the banisters. If he couldn’t be bothered to walk to the cloakroom and hang it up, it meant business. He banged through to the kitchen and said, ‘Well?’ Of course no one answered. If you answered it would be a dragnet. ‘Well, anyone got anything to say? Anyone feeling brave in here?’ We did not answer. He bungled past the side of the Formica table, banging into our lovely fireside chairs. He seemingly jumped high in the air (no one dared have eyes on him to see it happening), landing on Lucy’s bare feet with his chunky brogues. Of course she wailed, as you’d expect. Paul, who was hiding behind the fridge playing house detective, two years older than Lucy, ran out and grabbed Frank by the shirt collar, dragging him out to the hall backwards as he continued to wriggle like a Mekong giant catfish balancing against the top ridges of a too-small boat. Paul bounced on him, kicking him in the full of the back and head. So many tunks and clonks. ‘Kill him!’ Arnold shouted. ‘Fuck him up.’ I milled out into the back garden and stayed there until it grew dark. I shadowed wild pigs and razor-tusked beasts with a makeshift spear one of the boys stole from a day out at the Scouts, fashioned from a sweeping brush. It stuck in the grass at brilliant primitive angles though it took some skill to get it to stay rigid in the mud of the vegetable patches. It seemed the rest of them forgot about me or else they thought it was best I stayed lost out there for a while. When I rambled into the sitting room some hours later after it got too cold, Frank was collapsed unconscious on his armchair that no one else was ever allowed sit on. ‘Don’t look,’ my mum said. ‘Look straight at the telly, here, you can hire it if you like, just this once.’ She handed me the huge remote control boasting eleven fat buttons. Such a rare treat, especially as it was brand new, snugly wrapped in a thin film of moon-blue plastic.
After the lizard sighting my mum claimed she’d heard him calling out for hours, Emma! Emma! Emma! ‘I’m not the better for it,’ she declared, the next morning. I was up at the crack of dawn trying to steady myself, doing things around the house that had been abandoned for some time. ‘It’s understandable,’ I assured her. ‘It’s a kind of guilt, you know, you’re feeling all out of sorts with the way he is, what he’s going through.’ No, she was utterly convinced it was really his bellow she heard. ‘At one point I even heard him knocking on the window trying to get in.’ I thought of their window, the front double bedroom window, climbing out when we had the silly séance with a matchbox as a planchette back in the day. We all legged it from the house in unison, a herd of eleven-year-olds. ‘Move if there’s anyone here! Move if you can hear us!’ Then it flew off the bed, hitting the radiator all the way over at the far wall. It seemed an impossible manoeuvre for one of us with our little fingers and no experience yet of the trickery out there in the vast sickly world. Vickie Cawley laughing as ten crows. Me in pure fright mode. Billie Dunne jumping out that bloody window twenty feet up and running for dear life. It was only two weeks after she found the baby in the plastic bag down the laneway backing onto the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity convent. Same location where they later found twenty-two babies and sixty skeletons of women whose deaths were never registered. Billie stumbled across the bag in 1981, opening it up without really understanding what she was looking at. Though a tiny bloodless hand was enough to send her rocketing. I guess this was how young women got rid of unwanted evidence back then. It wouldn’t happen now with advances in DNA, with advances in social conscience. On the day of our séance my mother was working at the RDS Horse Fair on the Rowntree’s chocolate stall: Munchies, Caramacs, Mars Bars. All the leftovers were piled into a large shopping bag and dragged across the city home to us. It was the first time I was allowed look after the house without Arnold or my sister Lucy in situ. When my mother got home, she slapped me clear across the chops. She may have already met one of the mothers on her way – Billie Dunne’s was particularly hysterical – but if not her trademark intuition told her I had got involved with something unenlightened. Something mischievous and corrupt. She could feel it. The cold throughout the house was cave-like, wet and heavy.
The next visit wasn’t even in the deferential cubbyhole of night. I was sitting on the toilet with the door wide open, staring out into the landing, thinking. It was mid afternoon. Thinking of how to make her life better in the time she had left (she was already eighty years old). Thinking about how to access his funds to do essential repairs to the house, especially the kitchen and damp bedroom walls, which were, after years of neglect, in a dreadful state. Everything was in his name. She was Mistress of Nothing. What I saw next makes me feel like I may have already been a composed and submissive inmate in the Asylum. He thundered up the stairs his head intact as I had remembered it but a spider’s absurd blackened body, eight legs quivering on the carpet in front of me. Darted about turning to stare me right in the face. In a moment’s stampede of panic he was gone again. I jumped so quick off the toilet screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Mum! Mum! Jesus Christ, help me Mum!’ Back to being a child again.
There was this thing about seeing Frank on stairwells. Around 1986, I was a teenage Mod with a sharply carved Bob, blue bootleg trousers, a round puppyfat face slathered in Rimmel pale-biscuit make-up. I worked the summer months hand-delivering invoices around Dublin city for a pinstripe freak who sold encyclopaedias to people who wanted to show off knowledge on the shelf. Life was good, I was toying with freedom, heading to all-night Northern Soul dances and live music gigs, new people, new sensations. I lived on a diet of space dust and cans of Campbell’s meatballs in gravy. The quays were full of antique shops, musty solicitors’ offices and telephone boxes good for drinking on the hoof when the 7 p.m. witching hour hit. I spotted Frank on my postal rounds early one afternoon climbing up a metal staircase on Ormond Quay fixing his trousers, fixing himself, zipping his life back up. He seemed properly smug and satisfied. Smiling minus that trademark sneer. I honestly hadn’t seen that before, Frank as haphazard man. He stared at me and I at him and we both walked on by without a word. ‘He won’t last like this,’ my mum said when I told her. ‘He can’t go on.’ She was fairly sure she could get him back on track if he just knocked the booze on the head for a few months or more. He’d already been with her friend by then too and in the pitch of night she’d stay up around the smouldering ashes to write him letters her doctor advised would help. She was to make sure to throw them in the fire when her emotions were done. It wouldn’t be fair to expect a man like that to take on all manner of female fragmentary. He had a very important and utterly stressful day job that many men of lesser stock couldn’t endure. That night, after I’d seen him in town on the black basement steps, he returned home with Chinese chicken balls once again, this time for the whole family. Lava-hot balls of scrumptiousness in mini grease-proof bags, snowed in gorgeous lumpy rock salt. When you bit into them the chicken played a strange trick on your tongue, opening out like a new expensive umbrella, pushing suitcases of hot batter around the gum-line. For a few hours, it made us ridiculously happy.
Of course my mother was no longer capable of remembering these golden nuggets. All this harping on about how the stroke was probably our fault. We didn’t give it to him! If he just allowed a bit more of our help at home, we would not have insisted he be removed in the way that he was. Obviously he had a problem with it too. What we needed to know was if he was doing this deliberately. Was he wilfully, determinedly, trying to teach us a lesson for what we had done, when in reality, we were left with no choice by then? ‘Dealing with this is like dealing with a forest fire,’ nurse Bláthnaid said. ‘Even people with the height of expertise cannot deal with this at home sufficiently. There comes a time when you have to let the person go.’ He is talking about old relations long-dead and I asked her, ‘Could he really be seeing them?’ It is a ‘thing’ with people who are sick, apparently. He will not be aware that they have already passed. Is he caught in some foyer between? I wondered. ‘It doesn’t make sense that he would ask about his brother Edward,’ my mother said. ‘God knows he couldn’t stand him when he was alive. Him or his ugly Sligo wife.’ We have to stop this, I told her, we have to accept that he’s getting the proper care and we have a right to live in the house now, the best we can. The kitchen had been fixed up: cream shaker with high-quality Italian stone tiles; a new water tank with titanium coating; floorboards in the front bedroom replaced entirely (as the urine had burnt right through). ‘For a second I thought he was there in the porch late one night,’ she said. No! That was the milkman I told her. At this stage it helped to be stern about the whole ordeal. Such was her slave mentality towards him for so long that she found it almost impossible to disentangle from him in any meaningful way. We painted the bedroom at the back where we both slept a genial grey, with some of the furniture a Provence green to ward off the evil eye. The garage was cleared of his things and the garden tidied up to such an extent that you could now sit on a small stone chantry down the end and draw in the air in long protracted puffs.
At evening time I thought it best to summon him in the mirror to stop any of the nonsense that would no doubt occur later on. She was already so scared of going to bed that I moved her into the spare single room where he wouldn’t think to go. All the years growing up he never bothered any of us in there. I gave her some Ambien along with a few Panadol to aid sleep into the night and sprinkled some valerian and Roman Chamomile essential oils on her pillow. Tucked away in there from early evening until well into the following day, I began to feel that she was not part of this anymore, that I had chaperoned her away from potential suffering or fright.
His presence in the dressing table mirror was amorphous and vague, as if to show his full self to me was not part of the greater plan, that I was somehow not worthy. He would not have been like this with any of my brothers, had they been alive, but men of his generation were sodden in misogyny whether they cared to admit to it or not. Though I didn’t doubt for a second that he was there, looking back at me, sneering, informing me that no man would come to the door in a rush to take me out, that my skin wasn’t the best, that really I wasn’t the cleverest of them, a few forks short of a picnic basket, and more besides. His seething hatred began to make me laugh, as if any empathy I had left for him and his lousy condition was hidden away in a beanpole storage facility, the type that people use for bundles of clothes they hope will come back into fashion someday. ‘Do you think I don’t remember what happened on Bingo Nights all those years ago?’ I told him. ‘When I pissed the bed and you rolled me out like a sausage roll and said I had to wait in the hall until Mum got home.’ Putting me in that whiskey-fart bed on Sunday evenings because you were too lazy to babysit properly downstairs, when all I wanted was to watch Worzel Gummidge. What a lousy father you were but still you made us feel sorry for you. It was always about you. And what the hell did you do for your parents after they left Ireland? You barely bothered your arse ever seeing them again. When you did you were pissed out of your mind. They rang us here to complain, across the Irish Sea, you with no respect, turning up for funerals two days late. You who demands so much of us now! What a bloody joke! Do your worst, go on, do your worst. Do whatever you think will work at this stage and do it with your sick brain in all its shrinking glory! Oh but if you think it stopped him slinking into those horrible animal forms and darting around furniture at night, my grousing in the mirror only made him worse and brought him nearer to me, instead of up on top of the bookshelves or the wardrobes or the wall. A ferret slinking in and out of the bed bars at my feet, leaving drops of sweat and other depositions for me to see in the mornings.
When she passed away in the single room I didn’t have her removed straight away because that’s exactly what he would’ve expected to happen. He’d expect her to be lying there, in state, in Massey’s on the Old Finglas Road, a twin set and her navy skirt (always in navy, like a sailor’s wife on a first trip abroad, hoping to appear smart no matter where they would go). I didn’t mention to him either that she was gone as I wanted to see if he’d tell me about it, if he really had the upper hand when it came to using his intuition, his greedy appetite for a good hunch. But he hadn’t a breeze! He did however begin to appear more frequently, more sonorously if you like, in the mirror. I am not sure if this was a kind of latent protest, but the house joined in by breaking even more of itself up. The heating system gave out and the plumbing at the back of the shower fell to pieces completely. Twice I had to get a local hood in to bash things back into place or replace the piping entirely. Black mould broke out on the walls of both bedrooms. Dreadful shapes in butterfly splats and distant familiar outlines (the one of the Eiffel tower was funny, but I made sure not to laugh out loud), which I’d rouge over with the Annie Sloan chalk paint within hours of appearing.
I miss her terribly but part of me is glad she is resting up accordingly. No more, ‘Oh God, do you think we should go back out to him today? Does he have enough dark chocolate? Is there still a problem with his swallow? Are there enough clothes out there? I don’t want them to think we’re not making enough of an effort.’ She had herself tortured to the point where she gave Catholic martyr wives a pitiful name. Sad too that she would never get to go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship that I had promised we’d do. Those ships are something else! Ascend three hundred feet above sea level in a North Star capsule! Fine-dining extravaganza that holds more than two thousand merry-makers at a time! He hardly took her anywhere truth be told, not for a long time. Hadn’t the energy, or the self-governance.
Now that it’s just the two of us I feel I have an opportunity to understand him a bit more. I hope that if he sees that I know how he feels, how hurt he is, he might stop his games around the house and reach some sort of compromise. The dressing table was made for them when they first got married by a very talented carpenter, huge money, with the promise that no other identical piece existed in the whole of Glasnevin. The mirror carved in a classic baroque style. It’s good to concentrate on the positive aspects of where we were now, and to forget all the things that didn’t work in the past. He wanted to be a writer, for instance, but couldn’t quite stick at it, not like I am now. ‘There is a lot more to life than jumping at every silly ambition that lands on your mat,’ I told him. He thinks this is a sound observation and one that will ward off disappointment from expectations that are perhaps a bit too high. ‘That’s the problem these days, people want so bloody much,’ he says. Isn’t it so true! We are able to agree, which I feel is genuine progress. To think we were so petrified of him all those years ago when he was the one who was clearly so terrified of us. I get that now. Christ do I get it. That I would hide up here under the scratchy horse blankets during fights. Fingers so deep in my ears they’d be sticky and sore when my sister would eventually burst into the room to reef them out again. ‘He’s gone off to bed,’ she’d say. ‘The coast is clear for now and Mum has yummy shortbread in the oven.’
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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
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘Your house Mummy – if you remember it at all?’
‘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.’
‘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…’
‘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.
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In the Event of an Emergency
If you suddenly find yourself driven at speed, sirens blazing, to a hospital 200 miles away, then it is best to be appropriately dressed, preferably not in garish gym gear which you will have to wear day after day, your cheerfully bright pink T-shirt covering your bleak heart as you walk from your little boy’s bedside in the children’s ward to the canteen, from the canteen to the ward, again and again, until you can sleepwalk the way without any effort at all.
As you itch and sweat in this T-shirt, you receive yet another unpromising summary of the current situation from the consultant. You cover its pink pattern with tea stains as you drift into sleep in the canteen, clutching another paper cup, surrounded by chattering nurses. You curse the synthetic fabric as you sweat in the July heat with no air-conditioning in the quirkily named Top Flat C ward and, as the heat haze rises across the city, you imagine yourself melting into the lino in a pool of pink Lycra.
When the sleek, smooth-skinned student nurses come on duty, wafting floral perfume, looking slightly bored in their pale yellow tunics that seem unfairly chic, know that for the rest of your life you will never again wear anything pink, even underwear.
You steal. Because you refuse to believe that this is anything but an aberration, a tiny glitch in your otherwise normal life. You do not go to the Spar and buy supplies for your little corner of the parents’ kitchen cupboard and put neat labels on them. Instead you become stealthy, waiting patiently till the room is empty to take what you need from the other parents, those who are here for the long haul, like the thin girl who expertly aspirates her child every few hours, drawing admiration from the nurses as they flit past, coming and going from the hand-over meeting. There are so many meetings. You are not like this mother or the pasty man with the English accent who each night walks the corridors with a tiny screaming baby. After all, you are only passing through, stuck in the limbo of no clear diagnosis: any day now you will be spat out onto the street with your little boy. Inevitably they will see that there is nothing at all wrong with him and that neither of you belong here.
When the student nurse nervously takes hold of your son’s arm and pokes for a vein for the fifth time and fails again to find the right place to insert the needle, avoid shouting at her to stop, for God’s sake, just stop. This brings everything crashing down, with the senior nurses rushing down the corridor to come to her defence as you seethe on the other side of the bed. You receive a stern lecture from Matron on how the nurses are only there to help and abusing them in any way will not be tolerated. Even your little boy stares at you with fixed blue eyes that clearly disapprove.
As you queue for the showers in the communal bathroom, breathe. The man who is singing Fast Car is not personally out to get you, however likely that may seem to you as you clutch your damp towel in your shaking hands. He is not trying to make you late so you end up throwing water on your face and leaving personal hygiene at that. And the pale-faced mother whose clothes always seem to fill the dryer is not trying to delay you as you stand in line holding your freshly washed clothes. Just breathe, go to your room and put on the stained T-shirt instead.
And when you finally arrive sweating and exhausted to begin Groundhog Day in Top Flat C, know that inevitably it is the student nurse, the one you screamed at the day before, who gets to tell you with a slight smirk that you ‘just missed’ the consultant. Do not curse and do not try to stalk him in the canteen as he eats breakfast surrounded by his fawning interns. Do not raise your voice so high above the clatter of dishes that everyone turns to stare. There is no other way to get through the day than to breathe. Keep breathing.
After many years of being loosely connected to the agnostic side of the house, you find yourself spending early morning hours in the sanctuary of the hospital chapel, reading that line from Ernest Hemingway in the book of sayings: The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
Once on a walk around the block you find a proper church and venture inside to discover that Mass is taking place. An old man shuffles in beside you and smiles. Unable to hold back the tears that have been threatening now for several days, you pray with a feverish intensity you did not know was possible.
Even though you have always scoffed at people who see ‘signs’, when you wake suddenly in the early morning in your bedroom in the parents’ quarter from a dream about a black furry spider, you find a little spider on the floor and see this as a talisman that all will be well.
Daydream. This helps pass many hours in the mind-numbing waiting game your life has become because hospitals are just one big waiting room: waiting for the arrival of the consultant, for the new drip to be put up, for the porter to come to take you both to the X-ray department. It helps, therefore, to imagine what it would be like to lean into the young English man you keep meeting in the laundry room, whose pale, washed-out skin tells its own tale of just how long he has been here. Now as you sit in the ward you look up in time to see him pass by on his way somewhere, and you close your eyes and feel the heat of his body merge with yours, to let everything else melt away and feel only this empty burning.
When you return from the canteen, watch your son through the fly-screen, asleep in a pile of pillows by the internal window, the heat lifting off the old lino, the varnished wood, the metal beds. Lie beside him on the cool white pillows. Get lost in the droning chatter about the caravan park where Betty and Julie, the mother and aunty of the little boy with the bowel problem, spend their summer, where they would be now if he weren’t so sick again, where they travel every day in long, meandering conversations painting vivid pictures of the shop, the early evening drinks parties, the dangerous currents at one end of the beach.
As you listen to the insistent bleep of the drip, watch the sharp, guarded look of the anorectic girl, her squat, angry mother beside her who spends hours flicking through old magazines, and ask yourself what caused this silent hunger strike to begin?
And when the cool young registrar comes to check the drip, find yourself staring at her shoes and wondering whether it would seem rude to ask her where she got them.
On the day when you are called on to attend your son’s emergency case conference, do not let your voice break as you attempt to make your way through the damp, crumpled list of questions which you hold in your hand. Why is he no longer able to walk? Why does he fall down all the time? When can we go home?
Avoid snarling at the cool physiotherapist who impassively delivers her verdict on your son’s poor progress with motor movements. It is understandable that you long to cut off her neat blond ponytail and smack her perfectly made-up face with it. When the consultant comes in late, accompanied by four sidekicks in body-moulding dresses, wearing their stethoscopes like statement necklaces, forget that he looks like Bryan Ferry. Let’s stick together. Yeah, yeah. Choke back the hysterical laughter that rises in your throat.
It is infinitely more helpful to your case to see him as the one who gets to deliver the day of judgement on your son. It is all down to him now, and the speed with which he can figure out what’s wrong, even perhaps whether your little boy lives or whether he dies, though this is not an option you consider.
Take up smoking again if you must. Certainly have a glass of cool cider when you go out one day to search for a game to keep your son happy, and in a high, shaky voice explain to the boy at the checkout that he specifically wants this game, just this one, and there is so little to do in there and he is so bored … When the boy behind the counter smiles and says he hopes it works out, do not wonder fleetingly if you could ask him to leave his job here just for today to play the game with your son, because everyone else in the ward has special needs or, like the anorectic girl, they are too angry to care. There is nobody else.
Instead, sit alone in the darkness of the pub and order a second glass of cider and forget why you happen to be here. Just watch life as you once knew it: everyone coming and going in suits or reading newspapers. On the way back remember to buy chewing gum to hide the smell of alcohol. Also buy a small bottle of whiskey to help you slide into sleep for a few hours every night. It will help enormously.
A time will come as you stand in line for the shower when you find yourself singing along because you now know all the words to Fast Car. When this moment comes, it is time to capitulate, to hold up the white flag and surrender that part of you that has been fighting your destiny since the moment when your son fell like a stone beside the swimming pool. You are in fact here for the foreseeable future.
And so, later that morning, go to the Spar and buy tea bags and bread. Store your supplies in the parents’ kitchen but do not put labels on, because there is bound to be a newbie like you once were, someone who still struggles to accept their fate, who will need to feed themselves while they acclimatise.
And that evening, accept the invitation from Julie and Betty to go for a late-night drink with them to the pub around the corner. When they ask, tell them about the husband and other children at home, the rest of your family who have disappeared into a foggy distant haze so that, when asked, you stumble over their names. Watch the porters from the hospital, now transformed into a crooning quartet, in shiny black shoes and crisp white shirts, singing Please Release Me. Link arms with Julie and Betty and sing like you believe every mother****ing word.
Smile when you meet the physiotherapist in the corridor the next day and answer her questions on your son’s exercises in a calm voice. It helps to hear a piano solo in your head, the one you love, with the notes dripping slowly.
Thank the student nurse when she successfully changes the drip without causing your son to scream. Listen with interest to the mother of the anorectic as she tells you about how difficult her daughter has made her life. Remember to watch the pink gold dawn radiating the blackened roofs, warming the city into life, the seagulls diving and curving in majestic sweeps, and hold all this in your memory to get through such conversations.
When you simply cannot eat another piece of dried-out chicken, eat a cheese sandwich instead and savour its wonders.
Most of all, be whatever it takes: rational, calm, in control, and only when you arrive at your bedroom door in the evening let go. Then spend hours waiting for the little black spider to come back to you.
Many days and nights later, when, in late evening, the consultant gently tugs at your sleeve as you lie across your little boy’s bed, wake from your muddled sleep and listen attentively as he tells you that the drugs are finally beginning to work. Kiss the ground he rests his soft leather shoes on as he explains that soon it will be time to go home and that all will be well. When he says that he sees no reason for anything like this to happen again, hold back the tears as you tell him how much you value his kindness and that you are sorry if at times you were grumpy and anxious and confused but that you never meant to be rude.
And later, when you meet the English man on his way to the laundry room with yet another pile of crumpled baby clothes, stand in his place for this moment, know what this is like and wish him well. Say goodbye to Julie, Betty and the mother of the anorectic who never revealed her name to anyone. Throw the pink T-shirt in the nearest bin.
And finally, when you and your son are on your way back home, your husband driving, the windows down so you can feel wind through your hair, ask him to stop for something to eat.
Make sure you sit at an outside table where the sun warms your face. Afterwards get three bowls of bread-and-butter pudding, one for each of you. Ask the girl at the counter to warm them and cover them in fresh cream. Close your eyes when you take the first mouthful. Feel a space open in your heart once again, that place that has been clenched tight. Savour everything: your sun-warmed skin, the smooth custard, the wind rustling through the trees. And smile, because you know that this right here is the sweetest moment of your life.
In early summer, a muted palette of colours made up the dust in Kabul. Brick dust, truck dust, crumbling concrete. Sometimes worse. It curled a low dance around the burnished feet of children and clung to the hems of Burqas. It piled along the traffic meridians and the curb sides. Just above the city, it hovered in a saffron-grey pall. There was always colour; in the streets around the guesthouse Bougainvillea swaggered over compound walls, the parks were filled with platoons of sunflowers, snow on the mountains crested white against eternal blue. But sometimes, driving through the city, it seemed to be smothering in a bone-hued powder. It would be good to get out into the country.
Once past the Ministry of Defence, Hanif drove towards the river and alongside it, with the old city on their right. Even this early in the morning, he had to dodge the honking cars and pick-ups that crowded the traffic lanes. Men on bicycles, APCs, buses, tinted-windowed 4-Runners and donkey carts. A motorcycle weaved past them bearing a man, a woman and two children sandwiched between them. To their left, spring’s melted Himalayan snows still flowed down the middle of the riverbed with goats and sheep grazing on either side. In a month it would be reduced to a trickle. They passed the marketplace, with its anarchic stalls offering everything from kites to songbirds, both once banned by the Taliban. Crossing the river further on, the traffic thinned and greenery began to emerge from breaks in the buildings, the structures got lower and the air began to clear. With the city behind them, the morning light had that clarity and depth that made everything seem perfectly sharp and clear.
Field trip. Were there ever two words that could lift the heart of a curfew-bound, security-regulated Kabul dweller? Emily checked her phone, and there was a text from the woman she was to accompany to the arms handover event in Ghazni province.
‘Hangin’ with Mahsood!’ it read. Emily pondered the mysterious words. Mahsood? As they rounded a corner, she smiled at the sight of the iconic, handsome face of Ahmed Shah Mahsood, splashed all across a giant billboard at the left side of the road. Incandescent leaves, morning sun behind them, framed the hero in reflective pose, brows furrowed. Above him towered a mountain and beneath stood a young woman, smiling and garbed in a dark, Khimar-style hijab. Emily waved.
‘Hi, I’m Tahmina. Nice to meet you.‘
The woman hoisted two large bags up into the back of the vehicle.
‘The screen for the presentation…weighs a bloody tonne.’
The last note of her sentence lifted up with the rich, unexpected tones of West Yorkshire. She settled into the seat.
‘Newcastle!’ Emily guessed.
‘Bradford via Peshawar, long story.’ She placed another bag behind the passenger seat.
‘It’s a shame e-mails don’t do accents,’ Emily said. ‘I would have enjoyed them so much more.’
Tahmina’s face was enveloped by the fabric of her Hijab, and accentuated a glow of bare flawless skin. The rest fell tent-like as far as her waist, over the kamiz that went below the knee, with the standard loose pants underneath. Interestingly, it was dark maroon, not black.
‘Nice colour,’ noted Emily.
‘Oh, I’m a real rebel,’ Tahmina replied.
Once she had settled into the back seat opposite Emily, the car built up speed and the road to the mountains improved.
‘Think this is okay?’ Emily was wearing a simple navy blue selwar kamiz with an embroidered panel in front and a clumsily-draped dupatta. ‘The scarf has a mind of its own.’
‘I’ll give you a lesson,’ said Tahmina. ‘You need pins. Possibly a hair cap.’
Emily made a face. ‘Really?’
Tahmina laughed at her. ‘In this heat, right? Maybe not. It isn’t so important for you, anyway. It’s me that needs to be careful.’
‘Were you born here?’
‘Yeah. Masters in Conflict Resolution but can’t cook pilau.’
‘I can’t cook, period,’ Emily grinned. ‘The York programme?’
‘University of Bradford,’ Tahmina said.
‘Great. So you organised the event.’
‘Well, with a just a little help from the United World Arms Decommissioning Agency.’ They laughed.
‘I hear you were in Darfur.’
‘Yes. Nearly two years.’ Emily said.
‘I was in South Sudan with UW, so my experience is mostly from there.’
‘That can’t have been an easy gig. What made you come here?’
‘Well, after South Sudan, my options were DRC, deep field Liberia or Chad. So I went for the easy option…‘ They laughed again.
She cleared her throat. ‘Any questions about the event?’
‘This seems like a fairly rural area. It would have been a Taliban stronghold, right?
‘Yes, definitely. It’s not all-out conflict, like Helmand or Kandahar, but they’re regaining power now in this part of the province. Historically, they’re a community that has suffered with every change in power,’ Tahmina told her. ‘I mean, Ghazni was once the seat of a small empire, but you’re talking these days about really tough mountain men with no trust whatsoever in civil administration. And they have a deep hatred of military, national or foreign. That’s the challenge, really.’
‘It would be quite a feather in the international cap if we could make a go of it there,’ Emily said.
‘Yeah. The international cap is a bit off kilter these days, though.’
‘I’ve heard that a lot since I arrived.’ Emily looked at Tahmina. ‘Most people are finding it hard to keep positive.’
‘And that’s just the internationals.’ Tahmina raised her eyebrows.
Emily was silent.
‘Look, we can’t be negative,’ Tahmina went on. ‘I mean, let’s face it, you’d just crawl away and die otherwise, wouldn’t you? Look at the progress we’ve made. If we can continue to use the tribal infrastructure as a way of building up trust community by community — we might have a chance. That is where my being from here might help, that’s why I came back.‘
Hanif was slowing down, gradually first and then he came to an abrupt stop, as the road ahead became jammed solid with skinny mountain goats. Try as he might, there was no room to manoeuvre the 4-Runner around the herd. After speaking to the shepherds for a few minutes, he was not happy.
‘We will have to wait until the goats go off the road, they say maybe two kilometres down here,’ he pointed to a spot down several hairpin bends.
‘We’ll be late.’
Hanif said nothing, just inched along behind the goats, and Tahmina nodded at the view of the valley below.
‘Look, no smog,’ she said.
Immediately below them was a valley carpeted in brilliant green vegetation like an emerald lake. A river flowed across it, glinting in the sunlight like a watery necklace and mountains rose from each side like craggy guardians. Apart from the low sound of the car’s engine, it was a timeless pastoral scene.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Emily said. ‘So…peaceful.’
‘When I see that,’ Tahmina said softly, ‘I think, Genghis Khan, British Empire, Soviet invasion, The Taliban, The War on Terror…None of their glorious plans and aspirations are worth even the goat shit on that riverbank.’
Once the last of the herd of long-haired goats in front of them had disappeared up a track, Hanif began to drive along the mountain road at frightening speeds. Tahmina had already opened the computer on the exact file of the presentation she was to give at the event, ready to plug in and project as soon they arrived. She held onto it on her lap, grabbing the door handle with the other.
‘Hey, Hanif,’ Emily protested. ‘You know, they’re not going to start on time…‘
But when they arrived, there were no officials outside, only the usual scattering of children and local civilians. There were three national policemen on the other side of the road, but the event attendees had already entered a gate set into the high brick wall around the District Administration Centre. Hanif parked behind the other international vehicles, took the screen and its stand out of the back and disappeared into the building.
Emily had just got out of the car as a tall man in traditional clothing and a turban was approaching the building. Half way up the path however, he stopped and looked down at the UW vehicle. He stared for a moment at Tahmina, then he walked towards them, his wooden staff thumping the ground in time with the march of his steps. Emily tried to greet him, but he ignored her, instead pulling open the curb-side door so hard that it jammed back on itself. He began to speak in angry tones at Tahmina.
In the car interior, Tahmina touched the edge of her hijab, looked directly at the man and began to say something. He cut her off, roared something else and started to gesticulate, delivering what sounded like a sermon. A crowd was gathering around the car. The police had come over and there was a cluster of ghostly blue-Burqas and older villagers. Some of the burqaed women had babies in their arms.
‘Excuse me,’ Emily said. The man ignored her again. When Tahmina tried to speak once more, the man raised his voice and launched into an all-out tirade. A toddler began to cry. Tahmina’s lips were pursed, and there was more fear than anger in her eyes. One hand grasped the headrest of the front seat, the other scrunched a handful of her kamiz tightly into her left fist, white knuckled.
Emily looked at her phone. No bloody signal. She wanted to go inside to the event and get someone, but was loathe to leave Tahmina with this maniac. Hanif came running back down the path. He looked at the man with a fear that shook Emily a little.
‘Who is he? Why is he shouting at Tahmina?’
‘District Administrator. Very important man. He say she bad woman. Prostitute.’
Reaching the car, Hanif began tennis-necking from Tahmina to the Administrator. He skipped foot to foot like a nervous hen.
‘No Burqa. He say where is Burqa? Face not covered. Hands not covered. Not going to the event.’
‘He can’t stop her from going in!’
Emily inched along the side of the vehicle, but the Administrator slammed his wooden staff down on the roof of the UW vehicle, just slightly to the left of her head, with a loud crack. She gasped at the violence of it.
‘Emily — stop! Do not talk to him,’ Hanif hissed.
The man shouted now at Emily. She could smell body odour and heavy tobacco. Some of his spit landed wetly on her right eyelid just above the lashes and she had to stop herself from raising a hand to wipe it off. A band of icy liquid steeled its way across the inside of her chest; the force of his invective felt almost physical. She stepped back. When he turned and began to address the crowd, some of the women stood to attention, others bowed slightly.
‘He say nobody is help her. Punishment for look at her,’ Hanif said.
After another loud strike on the roof of the car, the onlookers began to move away and soon were gone.
‘Where are our colleagues? Why is nobody coming out to us?’ Emily glanced up the path.
‘Ceremony start now,‘ Hanif told her.
The Administrator slammed the car door shut and turned sharply to walk up the path to the District Headquarters Building. Tahmina sat back into the seat. After he had gone through the gate, there was only a blinding white calm, sun-baked and empty. Hanif’s mouth was open, he looked panicked.
‘Okay, quick. Take the laptop in to Christophe,’ Emily told him. ‘It’s ready.’ She placed it into his arms with a power cable and an extension chord, dumping Tahmina’s printed speech on top. ‘Give this to him too.’
‘No. I’m staying here with Tahmina a bit, she’s upset.’ She walked a few steps up the path with him. ‘So, Hanif — she can’t go inside?’
‘No, Emily. He say she cannot put her foot on the ground of his administration. Not even one foot.’
When the wooden gate closed behind Hanif, Emily realised she and Tahmina were alone. The national police were no longer there, the blue ghosts were all gone, children gone, old folks gone; she had never been in a rural village so deserted. It was Bergmanesque. She got back in the car.
‘Listen, Tahmina, it’ll be okay. I’m sure someone will be out to us in a minute, it’ll be sorted. It…it’s absolutely disgraceful.’
Tahmina said nothing.
Emily’s phone beeped. ‘Where RU?’ It was Christophe messaging. Now a signal, she thought. ‘Needed ASAP!’
‘Administrator attacked Tahmina,’ she tapped back. ‘ROM. Pls help!’
‘Event started. Just come.’
‘Staying — or let’s bring Tahmina in.’
‘UR official photog. Needed here.’
‘Per UW Gender policy, staying as support.’
‘Not here as Gender Off, here as Photog.’ Emily fumed. She looked at the tiny screen and another text popped up. ‘Do not embarrass this office.’
Emily couldn’t believe it, not from Christophe. She looked around the plaza. A lizard blinked from a low rock beside the road. The white international cars were laid out in a line like metallic sunbathers and the only visible Afghan soul was sitting inside one of them, shaking. Emily looked at the mobile again. She switched it off.
‘Hopefully they won’t be too long,’ she said, walking around the car to sit in beside Tahmina.
‘You should go in,’ Tahmina said, quietly. She was sitting in the same position as she had been when the Mullah slammed the door.
‘And leave you here by yourself? I don’t think so.’
‘You’re not Afghan, you don’t have to stay.” Tahmina glared. Her Bradford was coming back. ‘Nothing will happen, believe me. He’s ordered them to stay away and have nothing to do with me. I’ll be fine.’
‘Well, he can’t order me. What I want to know is who is going to address this? They can’t just leave you here!’
Tahmina didn’t respond, and Emily kept talking.
‘Well, they can stuff their ceremony. I can’t believe this. To be honest, I have my period. I really don’t feel like walking around for two hours taking pictures of any of them.’
Tahmina leaned over and put her elbows on her knees and her forehead in her hands.
‘Look, maybe you’d prefer me not to stay,’ Emily stammered. ‘I don’t want to make more of a scene than what’s already happened. But maybe — I just thought — I mean, why should you stay here by yourself. They can’t do this.’
‘They can do this,’ Tahmina shouted. She lifted her head, eyes glistening. ‘I mean, listen to yourself! What are you thinking – they do do this! They do it every day. Do you think you can change the world by coming out here with a scarf on your head?’
Emily said nothing.
‘They’ve done a lot worse,’ Tahmina continued. ‘If this were six years ago I’d be in a pulp on the ground — I might even be dead.’
‘I was sort of thinking that some of our international colleagues would sort it.’
‘The boys in the suits? And why would they do that? Do you think this is the first time this has happened? Talk to your female Afghan colleagues — you have no idea. You think we like coming out in the field to be treated like this? When we made an official request not to be sent on field events, they didn’t hold a meeting to see what could be done about it, they told us, “if you can’t handle field trips you’d better find a different department”.’
‘God has nothing to do with it.’
‘I do want you to stay…‘ Tahmina’s voice broke a little on the last word. ‘Look, a man shouted at me. So what? I’m still here and I’m fine. He didn’t hurt me.’
The traditional music coming from inside the building blasted and faded suddenly, as Christophe walked out the gate and down the path. He looked like an alien was going to burst out of his chest. Calm, controlled Swiss fury.
‘Christophe,’ Emily said, ‘Thank God you’re…’
‘Give me the camera,’ he snapped, ignoring Tahmina. Emily froze. ‘We’ll discuss this later. For now, I need some way of covering this event.’
‘Periods,’ Tahmina said. ‘They must be our lowest common denominator.’
Emily laughed. ‘That’s for sure.’
‘They always come at the worse time.‘
‘I hate these events, anyway,’ Emily said. ‘Sometimes you’re just a ghost. And there they all are — Western and Asian both — up at some podium swinging their willies… ’
Tahmina laughed out loud. ‘Why should you care? I mean, you western girls — you’re sort of like extra-terrestrials — they don’t know what to do with you. That’s why they don’t expect you to wear a Burqa.’
‘You know, the day I arrived, there was an event at the Intercon. I was told I wouldn’t need my scarf, since I was “an International.” So I walked in there like this — ‘
She let her scarf fall off her head for a couple of seconds and Tahmina’s face lit up with mirth.
‘Yeah. Like that.’ She covered up the Titian mane. ‘There was this Talib — my first encounter. I remember thinking, “if looks could kill, this is only my first day in the country and I am already quite dead.”’
‘So you went native.’
Emily winced. She deserved that. Just out here with a scarf on her head.
‘I find it more comfortable to wear the Pakistani gear.’
‘I’m not really native any more myself. Do you know what they call us, the ones who’ve returned?’
‘Because we grew up in Europe or America, we can’t drink the water out of the tap here like everyone else. We can only drink expensive bottled stuff. So we are “bottles of water.”’
‘You have to have a sense of humour about it.’
‘Must be hard, though.’
‘What’s hard right now is this heat. It’s got to be over 38 degrees.’ They were beginning to swelter. They tried running the engine and leaving on the air-conditioning, but that produced a strong smell of petrol that was nauseating. They opened the windows, but with the sun almost directly overhead, there was no shade.
By noon the windows were still open, but there was not a breath of wind. Beads of sweat rolled down Emily’s face and her clothes were wet through all across her torso, under her arms and between her breasts. They had several bottles of water, at least, but they were both swathed in dark colours, with long sleeves and covered heads. They both had worn sturdy shoes in case of rocky terrain. They removed the shoes. Tahmina’s toes, painted a delicate shade of coral, twinkled under the seat. They unfastened their bras.
‘Can’t we take off these selwar things?’ Emily asked. ‘I mean, the kamiz part is basically a proper, long dress…‘
Tahmina snorted. ‘You have to wear the pants with it. You can’t separate them, it’s called a selwar-kamiz. You wouldn’t be dressed…’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’
‘And what if he came back, you idiot?’ She began to fidget. Her face was fixed in a deep frown. She leaned back on the seat, eyes closed for a few minutes. ‘My cousin died sitting in a bus at the side of the road in the sun,’ Tahmina said.
‘She was one of a group being taken to a healthcare workshop organised by a UW Women’s Group. A mini-bus came for them — they were waiting in the marketplace, but the driver had parked away from the other cars up the road a bit. So they walked up and all piled in. Then a few minutes later, the driver got out of the bus and walked away…’
Emily waited. Tahmina frowned in a silent, gathering back of grief.
‘They couldn’t get out of the bus to walk down the street — no man, you see. The driver was the man, and he was gone. They wouldn’t have known what to do.’ Her words were being vacuumed back inside her, as she seemed to take breaths in without letting them out again. ‘They were sitting there for ten minutes before the bus blew up. Eight women and some kids.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’
Tahmina leaned forward again and put her hands over her face. Deep, smothered sobs shook her body. The force of the Administrator’s aggression was still ringing in Emily’s head, it flooded back again as she put an arm around Tahmina’s shoulder.
In the compound behind the wall, the loud speakers were droning steadily. At one point, they adjusted the sound system and you could actually hear their words. The Mayor got up to give his speech. The District Administrator got up to give his speech. The United World representative gave his speech, and Tahmina, who had worked on her speech all week, did not get to give her speech.
‘I think it’s bleedin’ hilarious,’ she said. ‘Four years at the Sorbonne, two in Bradford for an MA, two years in South Sudan and now home — to be locked up like a dog in the back of a car.’
Emily listened, and in her head, she visualised the scene inside the arms handover ceremony. Audience sitting in the cool shade of the courtyard, tea cups in hands. In front of the speakers there would be a long table covered in a white cloth, loaded up helter-skelter with a variety of arms; sometimes, it has to be said, rather old arms. She wondered whether there would be plastic explosives. Body belts. Digital devices. Even that genius, miniature death-dealer, the smart phone.
‘In America,’ Tahmina continued, ‘they have laws about leaving a dog in the back of your car. Actual laws where the person can do jail time or get a fine. ‘
‘Yeah. It’s illegal to leave a dog in the back of a car in the sun. I read it somewhere after a couple in Texas fried a Mastiff.’
Emily pulled her scarf up from her neck and scrunched her shoulders, trying to let a little air down her back.
‘What are you doing?’ giggled Tahmina.
‘Heat itch. It’s driving me nuts.’
Tahmina took a map out of the side pocket in the door of the car and began to fan them with it.
‘What about your family, are a lot of them abroad now?’ Emily asked.
‘My mother was killed in the eighties. We were sent to stay with my aunt in Herat for two years, because my father went to fight. He left everything behind — our house and everything — became a Jihadi. But eventually, he got us out, I don’t know how. He was an architect. You know that building beside the Ministry of Health with a facade and no back?’
‘He designed that. With a back.’
‘Did he ever re-marry?’
‘My Dad? In a way. He slept with an AK-47 beside him in bed for the rest of his life. Sometimes when I would make the bed, I’d put the gun into the back of the wardrobe, but he’d just take it out again every night. He wasn’t an easy man.’ Her voice faltered a moment. ‘What about your father?’
‘He was an accountant,’ Emily said. ‘When I left school, he got me a job at the bank. When I got the visa for America, he wanted me to bring the bank uniform with me, because it was such good quality and might be useful for interviews with other banks.’
‘Well, you’re so much better off now,’ said Tahmina. ‘Working in a bank these days can be dangerous.‘
It was beginning to really boil. They sipped their water, and after a while, they ate some samosas and oranges that the guesthouse cook had packed into a Tupperware container as a snack for Emily.
The Director of the UW Arms De-Commissioning Agency was on the podium now. He spoke of a new way forward and a different kind of brotherhood, where men would no longer need arms to survive. There was a round of applause.
Tahmina and Emily looked at each other.
‘No arms, eh?’ Tahmina laughed. They began to giggle.
‘Stop, please, I’m going to pee…’
‘I’ve been wanting to pee for the last hour!’
‘No peeing women allowed!’
‘We’re not even supposed to have the thing you’re not allowed to pee with!’
‘I know.’ Tahmina’s shoulders were shaking. ‘Stop! I will really…‘
‘Just say three Hail Marys!‘ Emily snorted.
‘The Virgin Mary!’ Tahmina said. ‘I wonder how she ever had that baby…’
Every single thing in the car was hot to touch. Emily was hot just sitting in one place, but if she moved, the plastic seat was even hotter where her body had not come between it and the sun’s rays. The cotton of her garment was knotting into damp lumps that stuck into her legs and back. They sat, listless, headachy. Emily began to feel sporadic pain due to the natural urge to pass water. They decided to sit calmly and read. They sat calmly. They read. From inside the compound, a rich, spicy smell wafted over; lunch was being served. After another twenty minutes, Emily was in real discomfort, and Tahmina was shading a twitch in her eye where a migraine threatened.
‘You know, the doctors in the UW medical centre have had to treat women for serious urinary infections due to stuff like this happening on field trips. It’s not natural!’
‘My friend got kidney stones,’ Tahmina said.
‘We have to pee.’
‘Maybe they’ll be back soon.’
‘Can’t we just get out and find a house?’ Emily asked. ‘Wouldn’t some woman let us in to go to the loo?’
‘Are you mad?’
Despite the harrowing temperature, Tahmina was going pale. There were dark circles beneath her eyes. Suddenly, she reached forward and picked up the large square Tupperware box, now ex-samosas. It was deep, and it had a lid. They pushed the passenger seat as far forward as it could go. The whole operation was difficult and terrifying, but they managed. Afterwards, their spirits were somewhat lifted.
‘You know that under Article 37c, Paragraph III, this is tantamount to abuse of official UW vehicles…’ Tahmina said.
Emily began to giggle again.
‘Vehicles may not be used as sanitation facilities by female staff unless Form 10B is filled out in triplicate and sent to the Chief of Transport.’
‘Forty-eight hours in advance…’
‘Next problem, my dear. What are we going to do with that?’ Tahmina asked She indicated the brimming Tupperware container.
‘I know what I’d like to do with it…’
It was another hour before the crowd inside began to emerge from the gate. The Administrator walked with the UWADA Director and the Chief of Section, followed by the Mayor, the local Chief of Police, more international staff and former combatants. They all shook hands warmly before beginning to make their way down the path towards the cars.
‘Here they come.’ Emily was nauseous, she didn’t open her eyes.
They were laying back, feet stretched out beneath the seats in front of them, their heads splayed against the back seat. Tahmina had stopped talking some time previously.
Emily could hear the British accent of the UWADA Director, who sounded like he was stopping a moment to speak to Christophe. Emily caught phrases of the exchange through the open window: Losing face…As if that woman didn’t know to cover up…No woman’s speech…to have touched the hearts and minds…No photographs…insubordination…No matter how many peace accords, you can never trust the Airish.
Tahmina was holding Emily’s hand, the other was lying palm up on the car seat, and part of her Hijab was folded over her eyes. She was immobilised with a migraine. Apart from the samosas earlier, they had not eaten since six thirty that morning. Emily’s cheeks were cherry-flushed and burning up, she just wanted to get on the road.
She could hear people getting into cars, doors slamming, and it suddenly occurred to her that they had not met up with the main convoy on the way out, due to the goats on the road.
‘Hey — do you think they just didn’t know we were here, or do they not want to taint themselves, like the villagers?’
‘Screw them,’ muttered Tahmina, without moving her head.
Hanif scrambled up to the car, cradling something in the crook of his arm.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked urgently, when he saw them. He handed a cold bottle of water in through the back window.
‘Thank you.’ Emily put the bottle against her forehead.
‘Are you okay?’ Hanif repeated.
‘Just drive please, Hanif,’ Emily said. Before he started up the engine, he removed a package from inside his waistcoat and handed back to Emily an amorphous, squishy looking packet wrapped in brown paper. Emily sat up too quickly, then closed her eyes as a peppering of dizzy stars ran across her vision.
‘This is not look very nice,’ he said. ‘But I bring for you.’
She let go of Tahmina’s hand and pulled apart the folds of the paper. Inside there was a crude white plastic bag filled with aromatic pilau rice and dollops of spicy goat meat.
‘Hanif, thank you so much — you are very kind.’ He began to drive away as the convoy started to move.
As she lay back again, Emily caught sight of two blue ghosts staring at her from across the street. At least she thought they were staring, but she couldn’t see their faces.
It wasn’t until they were well up into the mountains that their bodies began to cool down, and Emily was beginning to feel human again, just about. The chill of air conditioning soothed their Burqa-less souls. Four kilometres outside the village, they had to stop. Emily held Tahmina’s shoulders as she threw up the food Hanif had brought them. The white vehicles passed them by and continued on. There was no signal on her phone, but Emily guessed she wouldn’t be receiving any more texts from Christophe that day.
As they continued the journey, Tahmina lay back, in a silent battle with her migraine. Emily, feeling somewhat revived by the food and water, began to chat.
‘What we should do, somehow, is devise a way to airlift all the women out of the Taliban AOR — every last one of them, old ladies, young girls, female babies — just get them the hell out of there. Then let those guys live all by themselves as manly men for about a year. That would sort it, really, wouldn’t it?’
Tahmina didn’t respond.
‘What am I saying? A week would do it.’ Tahmina still didn’t react.
Emily sighed. ‘Sorry, Tahmina, just kidding. But I suppose that’s a bad joke.’
‘No,’ Tahmina whispered from under the Hijab. ‘That’s actually…blasphemy.’
A couple lived on a farm far away from the rest of the world. They had land to grow vegetables, chickens that gave eggs, and a well for water. Nearby, there was a stream jumping with fish and, right at the edge of their land, a wood with trees to chop for the fire.
The couple had everything they needed except for one small thing.
On their wedding day, to mark the occasion, the couple had planted an apple tree at the entrance to the wood and, exactly five years later, it bore fruit for the first time, as though celebrating their anniversary.
“Surely, it’s a sign,” the wife said.
The husband patted her stomach and smiled.
The years passed and the woman’s belly showed no swell, and though deep love slept within them, the couple stopped lying with each other.
The man took to going to the edge of the wood at the end of his working day to sit underneath the apple tree. At times, when he hadn’t come home for supper, the woman would go looking for her husband only to find him sleeping against its trunk.
“See what you’ve done,” she said, one evening, while helping her husband to his feet. “You’ve worn a dent in the tree with your back.”
She smiled through a sting of jealousy. Being of a sensible nature she shook her head and laughed at herself, returning to the calm she knew.
One day, when the man was tired from his work and felt the cool of the setting sun in his bones, he went to the wood and sat, leaning in the nook he had worn in the trunk of the tree. This groove his body had made over the years seemed to welcome him. Before long he drifted off to sleep.
In his dream, he was exactly where he’d sat to rest but the day was unbearably hot. He took off his shirt, then the rest of his clothes, and lay naked at the foot of the tree. Despite the heat, a blanket of cool damp leaves covered the earth beneath the shade.
I wish there was a breeze, he thought, and closed his eyes.
What felt like a cool breath, ran over him, making the fine, blonde hair of his stomach stand and his skin bump and tingle. When he opened his eyes, the five-flowered blossoms on the apple tree waved. The branches swayed. He knew it wasn’t the wind but the tree itself fanning him. The branches came toward him, wrapping around his body and pulling him up and in until he was pressed against the trunk of the tree.
He placed his hands on the bark and looked up at the dance of the branches above.
“How beautiful you are,” he said, then kissed the tree tenderly. “How I’ve ignored you all this time. Have I been blind?”
The groove he had made with his back was now hip-height as he stood, and it yielded as he pressed against the tree. Leaves whispered in his ear and the smell of apple blossom filled his head and he became aroused. He made love to the tree in way that dreams allow. As he came, the tree caved, and he sank deep inside the damp, darkness of the hollow.
When he woke, he found he was lying naked on the earth. He tried to piece together what had happened, grasping at images from his dream, but, like snowflakes, they disappeared the instant he touched them. All that remained was a feeling of deep shame. He was cold and became self-conscious. Dressing quickly, he hurried home, his head thick with fog and full of fear and the sense of something very important lost.
The tree waited for the man to return. Every day, as the sun rose, the tree unfurled its leaves to the cottage in the distance. Every afternoon, the tree waited, hoping to see the man appear walking towards it through the long grass. But he was never again to rest himself on its bark.
As the days grew hotter, apples burst from its branches, tiny and sore. One, sprouting from the tip of the highest branch, caused the most pain. Within a week it had grown ten times the size of the others. It weighed down the branch until it rested on the earth. As the summer had its way, while the other apples matured and fell, the huge fruit stayed and did not stop growing.
One morning, as the tree opened for the sun, something was different. The large apple had disappeared. The branch that had held it now led inside the hollow that had been made the last time the farmer had come. The tree pulled to bring the fruit out, bark cracking from the strain. It called upon its deep roots to help. And with the strength of the earth itself, it strained until there was a cry. A human cry. Now the branch came easily. It rustled out from the hollow and with it a baby boy, the tip of the branch attached to the boy’s belly.
The tree slid some branches under the baby and lifted it off the ground. The tree wept leaves and blossoms of joy at the sight of the boy. The boy screamed and cried. The tree curled a branch around a rock and bashed its trunk until its bark split. It brought the boy to the split and he drank the sap.
The tree was devoted to the boy. It shaded him under its branches when he was hot and sheltered him in the hollow when he was cold. It let him drink his fill of its sap, held and rocked him till he slept. And the boy was content, playing among the roots. The farmer never returned.
When the boy had been with the tree for seven years, and the autumn had painted them both brown and orange, a tiny figure appeared in the horizon and came towards them. The tree became frightened for the boy, ushering him into the hollow and concealing it with its branches.
A little girl emerged from the grass swinging a small basket. She sat on the ground and picked the apples, throwing away the bruised and wrinkled but keeping the golden and shiny for herself. The girl began to sing. Clear, high and pure, her voice hung in the air like a sweet smell.
The tree resisted as the boy pushed at the branches to escape the hollow. The boy growled, a sound he’d never made before. The little girl jumped. The growling became a whimper. The girl looked at the tree, glanced back at the cottage in the distance, then stood. Flattening down her skirt, she tip-toed towards the tree trunk.
“Hello,” she said, tugging at the branches that covered the hollow. The boy struggled on his side, too, and soon the two of them were standing face to face.
“Who are you?” she said.
The boy reached out and touched her hair then touched his own. The girl spat on the hem of her skirt then wiped the earth from his face. The tree shivered at this, its leaves rustled a warning.
“That’s better,” the girl said.
The boy glanced back at the tree and then at the girl.
“I’m not supposed to come here,” she said. “It’ll be our secret.”
She held her finger to her lips.
“I have to go, but I will come back.” The girl smiled, picked up her basket, and off she skipped.
The boy run after the girl until the branch that led from his belly to the tree snapped him back. He pulled at the branch. The tree felt those tugs deep in its sap. As the girl disappeared over the horizon, the boy dropped to the earth with a thump.
The boy didn’t return to the tree straight away but sat watching the sun grow tired and heavy until it sank from the sky to rest. When the chill of the dark came to rouse him, the boy stood and, with his foot, made a circle of turned-up soil around the tree, mapping his boundary.
As the autumn darkened, the girl came to the tree every afternoon. She brought books with drawings inside and taught the boy about the world beyond the field. Even after he understood her talk, he would not speak back. He was ashamed of the rustling whispers that came out of his mouth when he practiced alone. The girl didn’t seem to mind that he was always silent – except when he laughed. He couldn’t keep the wet, sticky clacking sound inside.
The next summer, while the tree was busy bearing fruit, energy low, busy with so much life, the girl came all day, every day. The children started whispering. They were keeping secrets. When they did this, the tree would tickle them with leaves or drop apples on their heads. They’d laugh then move further away.
One sticky, late summer’s day, under the pale blue sky, the boy ran to greet the girl. This time they lingered at the very limit that his branch allowed. The summer had been a hot one, and the apples on the tree had grown heavy and begun to drop before their time.
When it happened, it was like an explosion. Every branch shook, every apple fell. When the surge passed, the tree saw the girl and the boy running across the field, hand in hand. In the girl’s other hand, an axe glinted in the sun.
The boy’s bony fingers felt crushed by the girl’s hand, he was sure he heard a snap, but he didn’t mind. He barely touched the ground, pulled with such force by the girl, as she ran through the field, down and then up the hill. He’d never been outside of his little circle around the tree and the further he went the more frightened he became, but excited too. The girl didn’t seem to notice. She pulled, dragging him on.
Ahead he saw a cottage, just like the pictures the girl had shown him. It was where people lived. People like him.
At the door, the girl said, “Wait here,” and kissed him on the cheek. He nodded and watched her go in. The door clicked but didn’t catch and remained slightly open. The boy was left alone for the first time in his life, he felt light headed and wondered if he had made a terrible mistake.
He watched through the gap in the door.
“Daddy! I’ve brought my friend home,” the girl cried.
“A friend? Where?” The father squinted at his daughter. “Don’t leave the child outside.”
“It’s the boy I’ve been telling you about,” she said, “the boy from the tree.”
“The apple tree at the edge of the wood?” her mother asked. “That’s your father’s tree.”
“I’ve told you to stay away from that tree,” her father scolded. “And it’s not my tree!” He glared at his wife. “No wonder her head is full of nonsense.”
The girl ran out the door and grabbed the boy by the hand. He was stiff with fear, but she dragged him in and helped him onto a chair.
“See,” she said, pointing at the boy.
“Oh yes, he’s a lovely boy, isn’t he?” the mother said. “He looks a little familiar.” She winked at her husband.
“Can we get him some clothes?” asked the girl.
“You’re not dressing a piece of wood,” her father snapped.
“When I start school, he can come too,” said the girl. “We can say he’s my brother.”
The father slammed his fist on the dinner table.
The mother laughed. “He does have his father’s eyes.”
At that, the girl’s father jumped up, lifted the boy from his chair, snapped him in half over his knee, and threw him on the fire.
As he burned, the boy saw the little girl cry on her mother’s lap while the father picked up an axe, walked out the door and headed for the wood.
I drive up the avenue and the trees dip low over the car, conjuring my childhood. I’m glad to see them so full and free. I glimpse the serried clutter of black crosses in the field beyond the hedge – the simple graves belonging to the convent next door. The nuns’ plot was my playground as a girl but I would dash, wary, back to our orchard if I glimpsed a grey habit. Young Sister Consolata, though, often managed to waylay me; she was tiny and fresh, not at all like the other nuns. She liked to plait my hair and tell me things and, sometimes, I let her.
Daddy always said our apples were blessed because the order lived beside us. He liked to gift crates of Egremont Russets, the sweetest of all his fruit, to the sisters; we always called Egremonts ‘nun apples’ at home. The orchard shut down after he died and, though my mother can’t quite believe she has no money anymore, she doesn’t care much either. Her family set up my parents with the house and its land before they married and Daddy made a good go of the business. But, when he was gone, it was all too much for Mam and the place deteriorated until she was forced to close.
I park the car by the front of the house and turn to Matthew. ‘This is it,’ I say.
He leans across me to look through the windscreen. ‘It’s fucking huge.’
I look at the lofty Queen Anne-ish façade rising up over three floors. ‘It is, I suppose.’
We go around the back, the front door being for high days only, which Good Friday, in our family, is not. Mam is slumped in an ancient deck chair in the yard and she looks undone. She sits, hand a-dangle above a mug of homemade cider, as if some mighty bird is about to swoop down and whisk it up into the clouds. She has probably sat here all day.
Squinting up at me with one languid eye, the other closed, she says, ‘I hope, Helen, you’re not expecting tea. There’s nothing reasonable to eat in the house.’
‘Did Patsy not get your messages?’ I ask.
She flaps her hand. ‘Sure, she’s useless.’
‘Mam,’ I say, ‘this is Matthew.’ He steps forward to be inspected, and my mother offers only a salute; the uncharacteristic spring heat seems to do away with her need for words. ‘And this is Verona, my mother.’
‘It’s lovely to meet you, Verona.’ Mam sips her cider and nods, her disinterest interesting to me because I’ve been harassed in the past about boyfriends, my mother snuffling after me like a resolute badger, wanting to meet them. ‘We brought oysters,’ Matthew says, after a silence that clings.
‘Of course you did,’ Mam says. ‘Have a sup of cider, Matthew, I made it myself. Helen, get glasses.’
I go through the boot room to the kitchen and, not finding any glassware in the press, I pluck two cups from the draining board; they are, of course, hennaed with tannin but I hope Matthew won’t mind. The kitchen has its familiar rotten-onion, stale-biscuit smell and I wonder about bringing Matthew into the house, about what he’ll make of its chaos of bric-a-brac and sail-like cobwebs, its peculiar air. I come out the back door to the yard and stand to watch the sun drift west. I go to the old sink, heave my mother’s demi-john of cider out of its water bath, and pour.
‘I made a simnel cake,’ my mother says.
‘Did you?’ I say, surprised by this unusual marking of the occasion.
‘And I fired Patsy.’
‘Ah, Mam, not again. How will you manage?’
‘I’m alive, amn’t I?’ She leans over and knocks her mug against Matthew’s. ‘Sláinte agus táinte, young Matthew. I hope you’re ready for this one.’ She nods at me.
‘I am,’ Matthew says. ‘Ready etcetera.’
He grins and I’m grateful for his contained ease. I’ve been uptight about this visit, worried that by meeting Mam, and being in the house, he’ll see into me in a way I won’t welcome. Matthew is perched on the back step and I sit beside him. My mother whistles a line of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and looks off into the sunset like a pilgrim contemplating a promised land. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool loner and I know me and Matthew being here may be hard on her – the having to converse, the need for civility. My mother is unused to the company of outsiders and doesn’t welcome it.
‘Yep, just me and the house now,’ she says, as if catching my thoughts.
‘So, Patsy’s gone again. What did she try to appropriate this time?’ I ask.
‘The portrait of your father. Not the ugly one.’
I tut. ‘You should’ve let her have it.’
‘I did let her have it. But I got rid of her, too.’
‘She’ll be back, I suppose.’
Mam shrugs and grins. She has taken to her role as singleton, as unsentimental widow, with an inert joy; she seems determined to live her life now in unfettered nonchalance. Patsy, who had always acted as a lopsided buffer between Mam and Daddy, was clearly extraneous. Patsy’s loyalty to my father was fierce, but it was my mother she was left with. My parents’ marriage didn’t age well, there was a certain disgust for each other in all interactions towards the end. Daddy was one of those men who embraced the arrogance of his generation, he was never afraid to use a domineering charisma in order to get his way. He cajoled Patsy like a snake-charmer and she sucked it up. Despite his over-bearance, despite his lumpen shape, women always liked Daddy. He begrudged the young – me – their very youth, as he got older. Women of his own generation, like Patsy, were his preferred companions because they knew how to acquiesce. My mother, being contrary, never kow-towed to him. I look at her now and it’s clear to me that she has thrown off Daddy like a shackle, that without him – and without Patsy too – she has found a way to be somewhat content. Well, she is a woman who thrives alone so perhaps she is better off.
The cider is flat, but cool and welcome slipping down my throat. The heat that radiates from Matthew’s body, beside me on the step, brings back our morning in my bed: the slick, fierce weight of him on top of me, the sweet length of him inside me, his soft grunts and smiles.
I quiver and goose flesh stipples my arms, despite the heat that drapes the yard.
My father would have baulked at our inertia, even today; though he was basted in religion, he didn’t approve of holy days. His annoyance at perceived laziness could be spectacular at times and I spent my young life on edge, ready to ward off his fury if he found me idle when the orchard was busy. Every season had its chores and Daddy meant to see we all took part in them, the better to produce the finest fruit in County Dublin.
My mother sips her cider and belches quietly between each draught. ‘The nun apples are even sweeter since your father died,’ she says.
‘You might be right,’ I answer; she has overheard my thoughts again it seems.
‘Amn’t I always right?’ she murmurs.
The sun’s heat sends my mind adrift. I gaze across the yard and wonder if the ferocity of new love can ever last. My parents surely once loved as I love now? If Matthew and I stay together, will I always want to coil up on his chest after sex? In five years, say, will I still relish the scatter of hair in the small of his back that I stroke like a pet while he sleeps? And will he hold me all night, pursuing me across the sheets when I try to ease away? I take Matthew’s hand in mine and kiss each knuckle in turn; he smiles and pucks me gently with his side.
‘Will we have supper?’ I ask.
‘Supper, no less,’ Matthew says, and he and my mother laugh conspiratorially, as if at some marvellous joke.
‘Her father’s word,’ Mam says, ‘“supper”. That man always had a great idea of himself.’
‘You miss him,’ I say, and she snorts a denial. But she does miss Daddy, in her own way, despite everything. He’s too often mentioned, too frequently summoned like a wisp of necessary air. She may be having a harder time letting go of him than she fancies.
I get up and go through the house to the car, pull the ice-box from the boot and haul it to the kitchen. I scrub the oysters in the sink and arrange them on a platter. They look elemental against the blue china, their fluted shells like pastry made of shale. My mouth drips in anticipation of the plump, briny meat. I put tea-lights in saucers along the table, cut lemons into wedges, and butter some brown bread.
‘Mam! Matthew!’ I roar from my place at the counter. Then, mindful of Matthew, it occurs to me that not all families communicate by shouting and I go to the back door. ‘The food is ready,’ I say, polite as a maid.
Mam tries to rock herself out of the deck chair on a series of swings. She snarls at the effort and flops back. Matthew stands and my mother holds up her hands to him. With a familiarity that tickles me, he heaves her from the chair, grunting histrionically all the while, which makes her laugh.
‘Madame Verona,’ he says, and offers her his arm.
‘Master Matthew,’ she replies and takes it.
The kitchen is cool after the heat of the yard but the candle flames and lofty ceiling make a welcome theatre of the room. They take their places and I nip back outside for the demijohn and mugs. I stand to watch shadows gather over the graveyard and get an urge to go and walk the land around the plots. When I was alone there as a child, the crosses made climbing frames for my dolls and oak leaves their beds. The giant yew in the corner was my den and I sat on a rock under the protection of its low branches, savouring the dank tranquillity it offered. I was a quiet child, silent often, and this was taken for belligerence, by my father, by Patsy. Mam left me be. I always loved the graveyard’s peace as much as the rumble of disquiet I sensed from the women interred under the soil. I talked to them, wandering from cross to cross, to lie on the grass above where they lay, my face to the sky.
‘What’s your name and what did you die of?’ I asked, and I fully fancied that I received answers.
Sister Bartholomew: ‘Throat cancer.’
Sister Consolata: ‘A broken heart.’
Sister Rosario Maria: ‘Old age.’
Consolata was placid, an undemanding companion. She didn’t talk much but she always admired my dolls and taught me things about nature. It was she who explained periods to me when she found me on my rock examining a brackish stain on the crotch of my knickers. I had thought I was dying. Consolata seemed old to me, unsexed by the veil, but she was younger than the other nuns in age, as much as in spirit. I wasn’t frightened of her as I was of them.
I look out over the graveyard and wave my hand at the crosses, resolving to visit the dead sisters in the morning.
‘Helen!’ Mam’s shout comes loud into the yard. ‘Hell! My stomach is stuck to my back with the hunger. Get in here!’
I go back in, top up our cider cups, and sit. Matthew is relaxed, loading his plate as solemnly as a priest at his rituals; he looks at home and that pleases me. I shuck my first oyster and the pop when I turn the knife under the top-shell makes me shudder.
‘Aaaah,’ I say.
I cut the muscle and raise the shell, being careful not to spill the salty juice, and offer a hasty ‘bon appétit’ to the others. Mam is readying her shucking tool and Matthew is crushing a lemon wedge. I turn the shell-lip to my mouth, slide the oyster in and massage it briefly with my teeth; I savour its brawny goodness in my throat and the dance of sea salt on my tongue.
‘Mmmm,’ I sigh, and set to work on another.
Matthew cuts his from the shell and lifts it to his mouth with a fork.
‘Why so dainty?’ I ask.
He shrugs and pops the meat onto his tongue, but he slurps the next one straight from the shell. When we’ve had six each, Matthew retrieves the rest of the oysters from the ice-box and we eat on. At the end of those, Mam emits a bountiful burp and lays her two hands across her stomach.
‘That was an absolute feast,’ she says. ‘Wonderful. The last supper, a day late.’ She chuckles. ‘Ah, supper. Yes.’
I sip the cold, grassy cider, look at Matthew and Mam, and feel content. ‘This is the calm way this house should be occupied,’ I say.
‘A quiet life is good for the bones. For the soul. Whatever that might be.’ My mother raises her mug to Matthew and me.
Scarfs of mist hang over the graveyard and I wish I’d brought my phone to take pictures to show to Matthew, who is still asleep in my old bedroom. He would like the gothic look of the wraiths that will soon evaporate to leave a corpulent dew on the grass. The ecology of this place is sewn into me and I know how every season affects it: the stark of winter, this springy soak-and-grow, summer’s glorious greens, autumnal mulch. I stand and survey the grounds, the vapoury mist, the crosses, the trees, and I’m lachrymosely grateful that the whole lot hasn’t been lost under a housing estate.
I rub my head and groan. My tongue is tart-sweet and my eye sockets are taut, pulled down towards my stomach which rises, in turn, to meet the tension in my forehead, on a horrible comingle of cider and oysters. We had continued to drink into the early hours and I slept little. I woke Matthew when dawn fingered its way into my room, wanting to make love, but he could only keep his eyes open for a moment so I rolled away and got up, the bed groaning as if disinclined to let me go.
Now I make my way through the black crosses to the yew tree; it looks, at once, larger and smaller than it did when I made it my den. I slip under its umbrella of branches and see that my rock is still there. Until the autumn I turned twelve that rock acted as chair and table and thinking spot. And also as a prop for young Sister Consolata, the better for my father to fuck her.
I had been sent to look for Daddy in the orchard; there was something jammed in the apple scratter. Mam, worried it was a mouse that would cause contamination, had to stop pulping apples, and she sent me down among the trees to shout for my father, the only one with the knack to clear the scratter’s innards. I wandered, kicking at boggy windfalls to see their brown bruises split. Every so often I would remember my mission and call out ‘Daddy! Dad! Dada!’ but I kept my voice low, preferring to eke out the moments that I was free from the endless pressing of apples. I looked in a lacklustre way for my father’s outline among the trees but, not being able to see him, I slipped instead into the graveyard to confer with the dead. I wove through the crosses, touching their tips to greet the dead sisters below.
‘Good day, Sister Bartholomew. Hello to you, Sister Rosario Maria.’
I headed to the yew tree to retrieve a book left there the day before. As I approached I heard a moist slap-slap and the same brutish groans that sometimes emanated from my parents’ bedroom. I bent over to make myself small and didn’t lift the branch canopy, but dipped under it to lie on the ground. I didn’t realise at first that it was Consolata – her head was bare – all I saw was a person with straw-coloured hair, like my own, but cropped. She was draped backwards over my rock. My father was on top, pushing rhythmically and grunting. His balled fists held him up, and the fair head below him bounced and incanted, and Daddy leaned down on each thrust and kissed the face. Then the head bent further back and I saw who it was, saw the lips that said my hair was pretty as she combed it, the same mouth that told me the yew tree was toxic and to be careful under its cover.
‘The yew’s name, taxus baccata, means “toxic berry”,’ Consolata had said. ‘And, Helen, you must never eat its berries, bright and soft though they are.’
I saw Sister Consolata’s eyes open and they were glossy and large. My father continued his lunging movements and I whimpered to watch my friend beneath him. I was drawn to Consolata by her silence and yet here she was, invoking God, shout-whispering my father’s name, whining like a feral cat. Never had I heard such odd noises from her before and I didn’t like it one bit. My father’s hands moved under her habit and he licked and snapped at her neck in great consuming lunges. The sister’s breath came in delighted gasps until she focused on me, then she bucked her head upwards and twisted her body in my direction.
I jumped from the ground, shouted, ‘Taxus baccata! Taxus baccata!’ and dashed back to the gap in the hedge to our orchard. I ran up through the trees towards the house and straight into the arms of Patsy who had been sent to look for my father and me.
‘Whoa, Helen, whoa!’ she roared and grabbed me to her. I was panting and outraged. How could Sister Consolata want to be better friends with my father than with me? Why would she let him put his tongue on her neck that way and kiss her? What possessed her to let him grind at her like an animal in heat? Patsy gripped my shoulders and held me away from her. ‘What bee is in your bonnet, missy?’
‘Daddy has Sister Consolata on my rock under the yew,’ I said, ‘and they’re humping like two auld dogs!’
Patsy slapped my cheek hard then pulled me to her breast. She hugged me close and dropped her mouth to my ear. ‘God will strike you dead if you ever say that again. Don’t dare repeat it. To anyone. Do you hear me?’
I nodded and she pushed me away from her and set off down the orchard calling my father’s name. I ran to the barn, bubbling with shame and rage. My mother was poking a broom handle into the scratter.
‘Helen! Hell! Where did you get to?’
‘Did you find him?’ I shook my head. ‘Christ on a fucking bike, give me patience,’ she said, and pulled the broom handle out and threw it to the floor.
Daddy and Patsy appeared in the barn doorway, both out of breath, both pantomiming calm.
‘What is it, Verona?’ Daddy said, walking forward to Mam. His glance didn’t meet mine but the hum of his guilt flew into the barn with him and settled in the rafters above all our heads.
‘That yoke,’ Mam said, pointing at the scratter. ‘I’m fit to take the hammer to it at this stage.’
‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Daddy said, and went to the shelf for his toolbox.
Patsy looked at me and mouthed a ‘No’. I eyed her and swallowed the words that scrambled in my gut, itching to be said.
Mam came over to me. ‘What’ve you been up to, Hell? You look half mad.’ She laughed and knocked muck off my knees with one palm.
‘She was below in the orchard, missus,’ Patsy said, ‘idle as a cat.’
‘As long as you weren’t beyond the hedge, nun-bothering,’ Mam said, pulling me to her side by my shoulder.
I looked from my father to Patsy. ‘I wasn’t bothering anyone,’ I said.
We are out in the yard again after a lunch of cheese and tomatoes and we cut Mam’s simnel cake, its top a blaze of marzipan, dotted with sugar-shelled eggs.
‘It’s not like you to bake. To make a fuss about Easter.’
‘With Patsy out from under my feet I can get up to all sorts,’ she says.
She stands over Matthew and me and examines us.
‘You look right together,’ she says. ‘Bless your youth. Bless your future.’ She holds her mug and plate aloft like offerings. ‘Eat this cake and drink this cider.’
So we do. And we sit, the three of us, and we talk about those who are buried and those who are yet to be born, and so much more besides. And while we talk I think about my father, about what his life meant and his death, and whether I will see him again in some dimension I don’t yet understand, and if he’ll explain himself to me. We sit on, us three, and we drink, talk and ponder it all until the April sun drops behind the orchard and is gone.