The look he stole ran the morning cold. The scissors became a dead weight in my hand. Their chat went on but I didn't hear any of it. Wrong was being done. I knew. I just knew.
Like mother did. She'd taunt. "And aren't you a real daddy's girl." Somewhere between that sentence and her unsmiling eyes, it was written. The way a bitter day shows up your breath. She never touched me, our mother. Held me in contempt, is all. Why? That's a road I won't go down. A graveyard tells you nothing with its cold tongues of stone. As long as the little lad was alright. The apple of her eye. That's what I thought, that she'd draw the line if it were him. Girls counted for nothing in our house. Steps of stairs, people called us. Me, Sis and Ben.
And we were.
One day I saw Ben in my coal shed. His arms wrapped around his legs, a wet cheek to his knee. That's where I went to sit small on the empty bags and hold myself in. Its plastic corrugated roof was the colour of flypaper. A lilac tree creaked against the sunlight. Branches loomed and tapped. Leaf shadows played over and over on my skin. Magic things lay in the jammed drawers of the soggy dresser. Treasure maps, I whispered. Ben became my first mate. I held him. He was only a whip of brown eyes and puppy fat then. The democracy of the cruelty made it insurmountable. More the way things are, and always will be, Amen.
Thank God for his work. It kept him, tired him. A workingman I am. Why did it have to take so long to be free? Ben's teacher calling to the house was the beginning, though we didn't know it then. Mother's shoulders were the first part of her to surrender. Then she became careless. The forgotten iron smoked round-bottomed triangles onto our sheets and pillowcases. The burnt pattern of her shame enshrouded us. She lost her glasses, her keys… Even gave up her daily warnings. I let Brid into our kitchen for a glass of water and she didn't bat an eyelid. She stopped looking both ways when she crossed.
Eventually, she ended up dead on the road. Like a stray. The car skidded to a stop, some seconds too late. I'm unkind? Yes. No forgiveness here. I hate her more than him. Yet, I bawled when we buried her. I wished I could wrap myself in alongside her. See if she were as soft as I imagined she might've been. She acted as if we were honey for bees. Close your legs! As if we children were the dangerous ones. She'd say he may have his faults but he loves those girls. Am I bitter? Yes. But only in the night time and in the way I prune those rose bushes.
He'd be drunk. Every saint known to man surveyed us and stayed silent in their ceramic gazes. Saint Martin, help me. He was choking slowly to death on coal dust. An industrial disease. Died within a year of her. A fact purported to be romantic by all and sundry. How daft is that? People thought it was hard on us. Orphaned. I didn't have his name inscribed under hers on the headstone. I won't be paying for that any day soon. I've paid. Those who know where he's buried won't need reminding. Those who don't are better off not knowing.
Not knowing. That's what Mother said. About sex, though she never used the word. God forbid. It was when Aunt Issie died. As wizened, and as pure, as the day she was born. It's better to die like Issie, to die not knowing. She sounded envious. We lived in a world of euphemisms. The real conversations lay under the surface of the polite ones. Those blackened fingernails. His tide-marks held on to the basin for years. He didn't say much. We never said a word. The silent steps of stairs. Not a creak.
I'd clear my throat to say… Sissie, did he, to you, did he? But I couldn't appal her with the sound of it, the meaning of it. And who knows, maybe it's all in my head, these fragments that tail off. I got brave. Such and such's father interfered with them. Do you think…? Interfere, now there's a word. Her mouth went sour. You're sick! End of conversation. Say no more. She avoided me for a while but she needed me for something soon enough. It was glossed over. I'm not too sick in the head to feed her cat. Or whatever it was. So where could I go with it? My whole life, people acted like the truth, as I knew it, was not the truth at all. A great worker. Lovely couple. Tragic. Sometimes, I just knew. And nothing could persuade me otherwise. If Sis had a different childhood, so be it. I was glad for her. Sometimes I thought she grew up in another house altogether. I never said anything to Ben. Besides, he was a man.
Home he came, from London, after all these years. He'd an accent but not much talk. No wife to be heard of. It was good to see his tanned face and lazy smile. I was proud to stride down town alongside him. Over for two weeks, but he stayed the whole summer to my delight. In fact, it looked like he didn't want to go back. Despite the letters addressed to him in a woman's hand. They tapered off after a while.
My Rebecca is eleven.
There we were, eating our boiled eggs like a proper family, at the breakfast table, skitting each other. There was none of that in this house when I was a girl. A breeze played on the net curtains, the tap dripped and the air was buttery with toast. I was cutting out a crossword from the newspaper with my dressmaking scissors. They are too big for the job. Rebecca was laughing. Her mouth was full of toast. It was a joke of Ben's set her off. Paddy Irishman or something stupid like that. She was in her school uniform; her first day back. Her mood dropped in a breath. She covered her mouth and stared into her plate. I saw then. The way he looked at her. Ben. It was as though he'd reached across the table. Their chat carried on but I heard none of it. I knew. Wrong was being done. I was housing a man who was stealing light. When it came to Rebecca I was vigilant, always on the look-out. Had I slipped up? You'd think I'd have thrown him out by the scruff. I sat there unable to swallow, a ball of bread sweetened in my mouth. My brain buzzed and flooded. Rebecca left for school. He went outside to have a smoke. I saw him wander down the garden path.
Maybe I am mad. It is a seductive thought. It means everything is okay. All is good. But I'm not. The truth is a thin milk light. You can't take your eye off it but it disappears. I searched and searched. Over the days, hours and minutes of our summer. That picnic by the river. Walks over the field. The bus trip to the sea. That carnival in the park. Evening times playing cards. There was nothing. He loved those girls. I couldn't find anything. Was it too much under my own nose? There was no one I could ask. How could I put such a notion into words? I sat in front of the crusts, shells and cups. I cast my mind back, again and again. A net to the sea. Turned everything I found over like a pebble, weighed it, and held it up to the light. Felt for flaws in the smoothness. Until it came, came home to me. Retrieved.
He was going out. A grey tie hung loose around his neck. Come here, I'll show you how to fasten a tie the proper way. You'll have to do this for your husband some day. I was reading the paper. The fire reddened Rebecca's legs as she stood on tiptoe to follow his instructions. He admired himself in the mirror over the mantelpiece and went on down to the pub. You have ABCs on the back of your poor knees. I told her. The attention flattered her. He was being nice, not many a grown man would take the time. But his voice… My mind takes its time between the worlds of dreaming and waking. Always did. His voice. I heard it of a morning. Becca, come help me with my tie. And me, still thick with the fog of sleep, lids resisting the early light. But I'm sure of what I heard, and that I heard it more than once. Ben never wore a tie. Not since that night, when he showed her how to make a proper knot.
Have I brought all this upon us. Tidied the way. I haven't the strength to leave my chair. So I imagine her, a baby still on the lawn. Fat and happy in the summer sun. Nobody but me can really remember her like that. I place her back there, for a few seconds of safety. Someone says May, let things be. The Lord takes care of his own. Like fuck he does, like fuck. I watch my baby kick her legs till a sock dangles. With the slow heartbeat of a waking beast a train nears. Rain breaks. Someone has moved my baby. She lies on the greasy sleepers. Long grass waves from the track sides. The train is louder. I hobble towards her. A stricken actress from a silent movie, my hands flutter to my face. My high shoe lodges. I slip from it to rescue my laughing baby. The train passes lifting my hair.
I see him make his water at the end of the garden. The shed shelters the neighbours from the view on one side, our high hedge does the job on the other. He is in plain view of the kitchen. If I don't do something this minute, someone, him probably, will convince me I'm mad. That my gut is lying. Who will protect Rebecca if I'm persuaded against myself? I march down the garden path. Dead breath chases my neck. My life is braking inside me. Ben is leaning in the doorway of the coal shed. Pity surges my throat. I swallow. He doesn't ask me what is wrong. I stare at him, tears washing my mouth. And still. He doesn't ask. No one in our family ever got a stab at innocence.
Niamh Boyce is from Athy, Co Kildare. She writes short stories and poetry. One of the winners of the annual Eist Poetry competition 2008, she had a short story published in the literary magazine Crannog (Spring '09)