Short fiction by 2013 Bristol Short Story Award Winner, Paul McMichael.
If I turned my head a bit to the left I’d be enjoying the view of Rathlin Island and those cliffs at Fairhead, but my mind leaps forward, inland, racing past the golf club, crisscrossing the river and uphill towards Glenshesk. I put the luggage in the boot and put together small items for my bag, rounding up lipstick and phone and mints and tissues that have somehow found their way into the unfamiliar nooks and crannies of the hire car on the drive down from Belfast International.
I’m going to walk the whole way up. It’ll take me good thirty or forty minutes but I’ve left word about the arrival of the prodigal daughter, so no doubt the others will be there.
I leave the houses and start to climb. Up ahead I can see the corner at McIlroy’s. I remember they had this wild rose with yellow flowers, climbing the gate post and throwing an arm across the blackthorn hedge so I’d have to duck down to miss a barbed finger grabbing at my hair or tugging at a hat in winter as I inched along the ice-bound tarmac on my way down to meet the bus.
I look up at the glen, squinting. It’s like a face, two farmhouses on either side for eyes, but cock-eyed, can’t decide which way it’s looking; the one eye implacable, steady, boring into me, laying bare my anxieties; the other sunken and off-kilter, looking away at something up high and far behind me. Then those eyes go and I am seeing the narrow valley again, the dapper lines of the pine forests and the sluggish brown waters of the river, carving its unhurried downward groove.
The yellow rose is gone. There’s a high gate now, the new wood just beginning to weather to silver-grey. I take a deep breath through my nose. On top, the thick honey of yellow gorse, unmistakable. Below that, the faint scent of cut grass, then something heavy, decay, centuries of manure and animal bones sinking down into the blind soil.
I pass the ruined house at the Teaughs, tumbled since long before I was born. I had an apartment for a while on the 22nd floor in Wan Chai in Hong Kong. I’d stare at the metal rigs atop all of the new skyscrapers in Happy Valley, arms poised, steady, balletic. I’d see pile drivers hammering away, plunging the roots of those tall modern houses far into the earth. Everything hard and bright.
Here nothing is quite how it first looks.
I go on, past McIlroy’s gone corner. I take another few steps. I look around. A telegraph pole stands a few yards ahead on the other side. Was it here?
I test the fence and then step up onto the high verge and sweep my hand across the grass and buttercups. I make a seat.
Here. Where Kieran and I perched on the way home from school one time. Me chattering about nothing that mattered; how much homework remained undone, the too prim Irish teacher.
‘Will you get back together with Grainne?’ I say.
Grainne’s my sister. They’d been off for a while.
Kieran, ignoring the loaded question, blowing a blunt little melody into a blade of grass, then smiling with the one side of his mouth, no matter how far I press on for a yes or a no, me teasing the sleeve of his blazer and hoping for his hand to graze mine.
I shivered with expectation, as if the tips of my fingers would give off smoke if we touched.
I sit there on our green seat a while longer. Sheep grazing. Birds darting about overhead. The slow day’s turn to the west. Then soft spots of rain on my arms, the small hairs quivering. I take off uphill but it starts to pour. I pull my jacket over my head and run, making for the chapel. When I reach the gate I am light-headed and shrieking with laughter.
I find myself in the doorway. The outer doors are locked so there’s not much shelter. It used to be you could come and go inside at all times of the day. There’d be a red lamp to show that you were in the presence of God, the transubstantiated body of Christ himself. I peer into a window but it’s dark inside. Christ’s in hiding.
A car guns its engine coming round a corner. I risk it and tip toe around great sheets of water into the road and wave. The mud-splattered Land-Rover slows. I know the face when the window winds down, but not the name.
He’s searching for mine. ‘Is that Claire? McKillop?’
‘Go on, get in. I’ll run you up to the house.’
I go around and climb up.
‘Oh, that rain! Thank you. You’re…Pat, right?’
Patrick McIlroy was in the class below, the gangly clown.
‘What’ve you been up to Claire? Not seen you around this long time. Not since. Back then.’
He means he’s not seen me since I went off to England in a hurry that time.
‘Oh, you know. I’m in Hong Kong. Nearly ten years now. Can hardly believe it.’
‘Hong Kong, you say. High powered. Can you speak Chinese?’
I laugh. ‘I took some lessons. But sure I never get the chance.’
Hong Kong could mean anything to him. Banking. Shipping. Triads.
‘I’m in supply chain management,’ I say.
‘High powered,’ he says.
‘Right. It’s all good, you know? What about you? Married?’
‘Well…Finnuala and I are separated now. She’s in Cushendall.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Pat. I didn’t mean to pry.’
‘Ach, sure you’re not to know. Can’t be helped. Better this way. I see the boys at the weekend. They’re doing well.’
Pat wrestles the gear stick and has the car leaping from the brow of a sharp hump in the road. My insides lift and separate momentarily, a part of me in freefall for a split second. I drop my hands to hold my tummy. Pat halts at the gate and before I get a chance to prepare, I’m in front of the red door. I glance into the kitchen through the window. The range is gone this time. Fitted cupboards in the place of the old dresser with its bills and letters and Daddy’s incredibly vital football pools coupons stuffed behind the china waiting to be posted. The room is lit by halogens, a white glare instead of the accustomed yellowish gleam. Something else is missing. The Sacred Heart of Jesus with its crimson flicker, our own faulty guiding star. It was on the wall above the range and always on.
I’m pulled right back. Midnight on Christmas Eve, freezing to death in the vestibule of the church while Daddy and Mammy glad hand the curate and the neighbours, then us walking home, children thumping icicle hands in mittens, the Jesus glow from the kitchen window and the promise of mince pies and scalding tea in the good china and the presents miraculously stowed beneath the tree but don’t you dare touch, and away to bed now do you hear and never mind tugging the paper at the corners and weighing and shaking ourselves into a tizzy of expectation, vowing to stay up all night but not even seeing out the first of the darkest hours.
We put a full stop to growing up. Me and Kieran.
My sister Grainne opens the door. A small dog emerges from a far corner and skates on the tiles across the floor towards us, yelping and spinning madly. Grainne has her hair short. Her nails are a flaming orange, God help us.
‘Come on in, Jesus, Claire, you’re soaked.’
‘Awful. I thought I’d walk. Pat McIlroy rescued me from the chapel.’
‘You got most of the way then. That was good of him. Mammy’s been waiting for you.’
‘Where is she? I’ll have to go back down for the car later.’
‘Front room. We thought you’d ring first. You could’ve rung.’
She probably wanted one last chance to do me down to Mammy. Grainne and me, we were always head to head growing up. Too close in age for our own good, both of us flirting with Cahal Sharp at the Christmas Bazaar that year Daddy won two turkeys in the parish draw. You get marked by those things. Kinship soured.
She turns, sort of blocks the low doorway to the hall.
‘She’ll need a moment, Claire. I’ll tell her you’re here.’
I get it. She’s the gate keeper now. That would have been my fate.
I take off my damp shoes and sit at the table. The dog sniffs then licks bare toes. I get up again. Look around for the kettle. Open cupboards trying for tea bags. Everything neater, newer.
Mammy comes in and I kind of freeze at the sink, kettle half full. I twist my head and then turn square to face her.
‘Ach, come here, Claire.’
I step towards her and she pulls me in for an embrace. She’s shorter, slighter than I remember but her arms and fingers, the touch is soft, without tension in them. Perhaps she’s forgiven me for missing Daddy’s funeral. I’d been on a flight to Sydney when he dropped dead two years ago. They’d have had to wait another three days and I could have pushed it. I should have. But let’s face it, they could have pushed me too. We let ourselves get in the way of ourselves.
She breaks and holds my shoulders.
‘You look well, Claire.’
‘Mammy. I’m awful sorry. I’m so sorry about not being there…at his funeral.’
Grainne says, ‘aye, work first. Sure you’re such a busy woman. Galloping around Asia.’
I open my mouth and draw a breath then stop, pull my lips into prim smile instead. I need to stick with placid.
Mammy steps in.
‘Never mind that now, Grainne. Sure it’s done. We could have put it off, you know? Let it go. Here, Claire, sit. Sit down. Grainne, wet the tea.’
Grainne slams the kettle about and perches at the new range with her arms folded.
I pull at the collar of my blouse and angle myself away from her gaze.
‘Love the new kitchen. When did you get it done?’ I say.
‘Well. It is was time for a clear out when your father died. He had a wee insurance policy. Still can’t find everything in all these cupboards. Grainne keeps it organised. She’s been great, you know?’
‘What’ve you done with the larder,’ I say, ‘all those shelves.’
‘Aye,’ says Mammy, ‘you could always put your hand to what you needed in that larder. It’s the downstairs loo now. A tip for later in life, Claire. Always get one put in downstairs, you know?’
‘I have an apartment.’
Mammy looks bitten.
My big mouth needs a big jaw to ram it shut if required.
Grainne pours tea. I stand up but then look helpless to find side plates for the date and walnut loaf and buttered barm-brack pulled from tins.
‘Cake’s homemade,’ says Grainne.
‘I still do a wee bit. Keep my hand in,’ says Mammy, ‘though it’s just as good from the Spar these days.’
I take a slice of the cake. The dates are dark and chocolatey, the sponge is velvet. The dog paws a leg for his share.
‘This is delicious. You should sell it. Go online.’
Mammy chortles, a familiar vibration. I want to put an arm around her. The new table and Grainne’s two elbows separate us.
‘Seriously,’ I say, ‘there’s a big market now in China for ethnic food.’
‘Ethnic food. Can you hear yourself?’ says Grainne.
I turn my head a fraction. ‘There’s a whole world out there, Grainne, you know?’
‘Claire, don’t be daft. Online? Did you ever?’ says Mammy.
Grainne taps a fingernail on the side of the cup. Her eyes fix me.
‘How about Joe? Eugene?’ My brothers. ‘Are they coming?’ I say.
‘Eugene has something at school until six. Joe’s with the vet. Sheep this time. He’s never done,’ says Mammy.
‘Mammy, wait till I tell you,’ says Grainne, ‘someone from the Council asked him the other day if farming round here was ever more than keeping bog looking good.’
‘The cheek of them.’
It strikes me that Grainne might be better off if they had tenants for the fields. Where would she go if Joe wanted to live-in so-to-speak? What if Mammy needed to go into sheltered accommodation?
I help tidy up. The three of us circle each other round the kitchen. Small talk about the weather in Hong Kong, the joys of global supply chain management, my new apartment. Grainne follows Mammy to the front room. The others will be here soon and she wants to sit there and wait by the fire.
I put a last cup away in the new dishwasher. Then I stand at the sink looking out. Inside, it’s all new, but outside nothing has changed, the sea and the sky merged at the horizon, firebreaks criss-crossing the forests, felled trees wrenched away from the ground in ugly patches, small birds lining the telegraph wires and the eaves of the bigger barn across the yard.
I take a deep breath. Twenty years ago, hidden behind the last of the winter bales, me and Kieran McHugh. I’d hardly call it making love but we did our best. I’d my reasons of course but he had his, I found out later.
Afterwards, we picked straw from each others clothes, wondering what we had just done.
‘Claire. Please. I—
‘There’s two of us, Kieran, you know. No bother.’
I didn’t tell him I was late. Took weeks to tell anyone though the turmoil was written all over my face, or so I imagined.
My mother was grim, button-mouthed at first, then tearing into Daddy. ‘You’re never around. Left it all up to me. Is it any wonder?’
‘Who? Who did it?’ Daddy demanded of me.
I wouldn’t say.
A car pulls into the yard. It’s Joe with Celia and their two girls. He’s the usual diffident charm, smiling, his big sandpaper paws pulling me in. Celia is ninety to the dozen, all one high-pitched squeal. How does anyone know what she’s really saying? They’re happy it seems.
Eugene comes in a few minutes later, arriving on foot. Maureen has the car and is going to come over later after dropping their eldest off for a study date. He gives me a hug in the kitchen but I sense he’s holding back, weighing up the bundle of dilemmas and moral murk that’s swept in from the glen.
Eugene will take all the time needed to decide whether a thing should make him happy.
Joe will always be happy.
Grainne, she’ll never be happy. It can’t be me she’s angry with all these years. Kieran was no more than a fling for her I’d always assumed. Maybe she still holds a candle. Maybe it was all about him choosing me for his final fumble with a girl, not her.
I’d met Kieran in the small carpark at the chapel a few days later. He’d said he was sorry.
‘Everything. Claire. Jesus, it’s fucking mess. It’s not you, it’s—
‘Here we go.’
‘What? What are you, Kieran?’
‘Fuck’s sake Kieran. Do I look like a lab rat?’
That was the last time we talked. Then I was a firework, exploding all over the farm. ‘Me and Kieran McHugh? Married? A joke. Can you hear yourselves? And if you think I’m going to carry this thing for another seven months and have it adopted, then think again.’
‘Now listen, Claire—
‘I’m not going to be saddled with it. People saying I turned the father off girls.’
Humiliation at mass the next Sunday. Neighbours stared. My parents gave me the silent treatment. Nobody talked to anyone else, least of all me and Grainne.
Maureen arrives a while later with her youngest, Brona, who smiles and says hi at the door before joining her cousins and bundling up the stairs. I watch them mount each step, phone-jabbing and adult-averse, their accents wavering from one side of the Atlantic to the other.
‘Like, seriously Brona?’
‘Away on, Brona.’
‘I was like, duh.’
‘Aye, he won’t stop. Tons of wee Snapchats.’
I envy their togetherness and apparent sophistication. At their age, Grainne and I read picture stories in Just Seventeen.
Maureen drops her messages on the kitchen table, rummages around for something from her bag. Then she draws in a long breath. ‘Sorry, Claire. Give me a second. Put these bags down. Are you hungry? You’ll be hungry. Such a long way. Let’s get you sorted out with a drop of tea in your hand. I’ve roast ham from McLister’s. Will you take a sandwich? Aye? Go on! I’ll join you. Not had time for lunch myself to be honest. Eugene’ll kill me. He’s always on about it. Even teachers need a break, he says.’
‘You’re okay. I had something earlier, Maureen. Thanks, really.’
‘Oh, well. There’s time later. Let’s go and join the others. Family gathering, that’ll get your juices going, no?’ She laughs.
I’ve only met her the once before, at her wedding. I liked her. She forced a wedge of wedding cake into my bag the next morning. ‘Go on, you’ll take it back to Hong Kong, surely. God, the Chinese would love an Irish wedding. Go on!’
I take myself to the new downstairs loo, needing to go but also to gather myself. I’m home but not yet at home.
Daddy would never tolerated that scented pot pourri in an old willow pattern butter dish. I perch myself for a while on the comfortable seat and admire the new tiling. Gone is the old loo with its persistent chill. I suppose I’d been relishing the grim, hard certainties of life in the glen so that then I’d be absolutely certain of the bed I’d made in Hong Kong. And it’s not just the missing larder and new loo that’s thrown me off. It’s as if the dank soil had broken it’s hold, bindings loosened. I figure that telling them the news about me and Kieran should be easier if anything. Then I imagine Grainne’s half-whine, ‘it’s just grotesque’, and Eugene’s measured, dismissive tones, ‘Claire, do you think this is wise?’
I’d had this message from Kieran out of the blue a couple of years ago. He’d looked me up online and wanted to talk. I didn’t answer for days. I’d imagined we would never see each other again. Counted on it I suppose. We talked on the phone. Oh sweet Jesus, he was sorry. Would’ve married me back then he said, saved me all that trouble. He regretted the pregnancy and me ‘having to go away’.
‘An abortion, Kieran. Let’s just say it. I had an abortion at eighteen and I was on my own.’
I went on, telling him about lying on a bed in a dank B&B in Liverpool, holding my tummy and staring at the swirls of damp on the ceiling, promising myself I was never going back.
‘Yes. Of course. Sorry Claire…if I could’ve—
‘Fact is, you couldn’t, Kieran. You couldn’t. Help me…or love me.’
I’d had the words stored away all this time I guess, honed down, like the blade of a knife. I waited for him to say something else thinking I’d string it out. I tried to tune in to the slight hiss at the other end, imagined him sitting on the edge of a chair, or at the end of a bed, chewing on his lip. I’m surprised he didn’t cut me off.
But maybe he’d never talked about all this. I hadn’t, so why should he?
‘It takes two to tango, Kieran, you know?’ I said. I remembered our grassy seat that day, my fingers trembling when they grazed his. ‘If I’m ever in London…we could meet up?’
‘Are you sure? I’d like that, Claire.’
‘Well. Let’s see how we go.’
I did see. I stayed at his place on a business trip. He had a view of Primrose Hill. We raked over the bones of our childhoods and how we were ‘different people now’. I blurted out, the two of us coming in from a night out and too much wine that no man had ever really made love to me as needfully and urgently as he had that night and that his lips had me seeing stars.
‘Sorry about that,’ I told him the next morning. ‘Must’ve read it in a book of shite poems. Though I don’t actually read poetry in case you’re thinking I’ve gone soft.’
He laughed, an honest hearty release, and I found myself joining in, chasing the last of our demons out into the London street.
I didn’t tell my parents we were friends again.
We kept up over Skype. He came out to Hong Kong for a holiday. We flew to Bangkok and we ended up in a gay bar, more than once, dancing to cheesy Asian pop music and thinking we were so far, far away from Glenshesk it might as well be Mars and what would they all think back home and to hell with what they think!
Then last year he called me with terrible news about his health. He’d be starting chemo.
I cried a lot. Somehow Kieran found the strength to be the shoulder for me.
I was going to lose him again but this time I was determined it would be different. Kieran too. So we agreed, the line of McHugh’s would not end with him.
I wash my hands and fix my lipstick and relocate wayward strands of hair. When I go in to the front room, no-one has taken a seat yet except Mammy. The others slowly separate and move in nonchalant little steps, mirroring the hesitant, unsettled gestures I make to find a place to park myself.
Maureen puts herself down beside me on the two seater.
Eugene’s perches himself at one of the two big sash windows.
Mammy’s by the fire place, comfortable in a high backed arm chair.
Joe and Celia end up on the big sofa, Joe’s arm around her shoulders. He gives her a squeeze now and then, shutting down the start of another opaque anecdote about Mrs. Kelly and her troubles with the drains outside the tourist office on Castle Street.
Grainne is on a chair carried in from the hall for the purpose, martyring herself again. She’s sits there stiff-necked and crowned by an insipid watercolour of the glen from the Greenan Road. I glance at the daub of white in the middle of the picture that is the Church of the Immaculate Conception. I think about Kieran, his courage since he was diagnosed, sharing long conversations about life, the future, the crystallising talk of legacies and children. I cast around the front room, fragments of conversations, familiar yet peculiar.
‘Of course I threatened to take her phone and she went off on one, like it was stitched to her hand,’ says Celia to Maureen.
‘I’d say it’s not an open door wake. They’re private people,’ says Eugene to Joe.
‘Does he not get it when no means no?’ says Grainne to Mammy.
‘Ach, them ones don’t know the price of money,’ says Maureen to Grainne.
‘Joe, here. Get me that cup,’ says Mammy.
‘Will I top you up?’
‘No, it’ll do grand. Just to wet my lips.’
It’s Grainne that gets up off the sofa.
Something catches my eye, drawing me to the window. I set my own cup on the sill beside Eugene and look up. The sky darkens.
Movement. A flock of birds, countless winged shards, lifting up in waves from the wires and the trees and the fences, surging upwards and coming together in one roiling, speckled cloud that wheels around and floats higher, its sinuous curves easing into delicate new contours like strange smoke.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ says Maureen, beside me now.
‘I’d forgotten. Amazing. How do they know…it’s kind of supernatural.’
‘Did you know there’s a name for it?’
I’ve no answer.
‘Murmuration,’ she says, ‘it’s a murmuration of starlings.’
We keep looking, the two of us, until the room goes quiet. Now the rest of them are at the windows, watching. We stare out, the whole family, spellbound, until the strange cloud moves further away and then sinks, dropping behind the row of tall chestnuts that mark the edge of the farm.
I whisper it again under my breath – murmuration.
A weightless word. Untethered.
I clear my throat and turn away from the window.
‘Listen, Mammy, everyone, I’ve got some news.’