Danny goes to sleep, not sure what he has witnessed. When he wakes, he finds life is changed for ever.
I AM WOKEN BY MUMBLED VOICES originating from the front sitting room. A cold slice of daylight cuts through the parting of the curtains. I feel the iciness like little stabs coming at me from within the room. I breathe out in a ‘huh’ to see my breath materialise in front of me. Their voices rise and fall, in an excited tension as if great news is being told, tight and loose and then tight again. I scramble into my clothes of the previous day, darned socks and scratchy flannel trousers, a starchy shirt over my vest. My tread is soft. I do not want to disturb the commotion, to become part of it so
I sit on the bottom step and wait. My arm wraps around the thick trunk of the banister. They sense me and descend like wild dogs, snouts down sniffing at a rabbit.
I hear my mother, her voice edgy and unnatural. “My baby, my baby,” she coos.
Someone directs me to her, making me leave behind the bannister trunk. She smothers me to her chest as if I alone can save her. I am swamped and try to suck in air. They think I am crying, so I go along with it. Not quite knowing what is expected of me. I follow their lead and allow myself to be fussed over.
It is decided I am to be told. My mother fights to compose herself. I know this by the way she clears her throat, dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief. Then, I notice she is without jewellery. No pearls at her neck, no earrings clipped to her lobes. She looks naked. I look away.
“Come here, honey. You’re the man of the house now. You’ve to fill your daddy’s shoes and look after me.”
She hesitates to play to her audience. They sob in a collective swoon.
“Do you understand, Danny? Daddy is dead. There was nothing I could do. Nothing anyone could do.”
She breaks into hysterics and I am led away to the kitchen.
I absorb the information. Oatmeal with a spoonful of honey is placed in front of me. I eat greedily as if to prove I am fine, unaffected.
I listen to their prattle.
Poor little mite.
Terrible after all they have been through.
It was said he had changed his ways. He was seen at the temperance meeting no less. A new man.
You never know how it grabs them.
I listen as they clutter about at the stove. I know them from the village. My grandmother employs them to do the chores. The oatmeal sticks to the spoon and I scrape it against my teeth. I can see across the field from the kitchen table. The frost has drained the landscape of colour. All is tonal, whites and greys with an edge of blue. Shades of nothing. The sky meets the earth in a heavy blanket of cloud, laden with the promise of snow. I labour at the table, unsure as to what to do next.
One of the aunts comes in to the kitchen and sits by me. She looks solemn. Her back is poker straight. I realise she is my father’s sister. Strange how I had not made the familial connection before, I had viewed her only in relation to myself. Now I see she has experienced a loss too. Is it worse to lose a father or a brother? I have no way of knowing. I could not ask her. She clears away the breakfast remains. She slips me a biscuit and gives me a wink. I think, does she know?
The back door is rapped. Sharp, purposeful drums on the door as if to indicate the presence of someone of worth. The priest. He is harboured in and chastened for using the scullery door.
One of the village women, the one they call the housekeeper says, “Tsk tsk, now Father we know you like one of our own but the front door would be more appropriate.”
He enters, taking off his felt hat. “Veronica, I don’t stand on ceremony when I’m not at the altar.”
They don’t like his easy manner or his direct approach. They would prefer someone to bow to. Priests are expected to act like dignitaries. I wonder is he here to hear my mother’s confession.
I recognise the rhythm of the droning mumble of voices coming from the front room –they are praying the rosary. I am led by my aunt to join them and I am directed to kneel by the grandfather clock, its tick chides against the rhythm of the prayer. The general hum of responses is sharpened by the priest’s exact pronunciation of each word. At intervals my mother gasps. She is reminding the audience of her central role. I am puzzled by her reactions. I want her to be composed and withdrawn. Instead she seems to want to draw attention to herself and in turn to the deed.
Could it only have been the night before, when I watched her, waiting for her to put an end to it? To react. To do something other than delay. She hushed me. I know not to make a sound. To not draw attention to myself or to acknowledge the strange sight of my father gurgling on his own vomit as he lies spread out, on the settee in front of the low burning fire. He fought for air making a strange animal-like grunting noise, reminding me of a sow suckling her piglets. His face grey and slick with sweat. The stale odour of whiskey and beer with an undercurrent of something like pond scum, permeating the room.
Seconds, minutes, hours, I have no way of knowing how long it took. I had entered a different dimension, beyond the normal realm of life.
My mother bustled me through to the kitchen, up the stairs and talked as if all were fine. Just another evening. I was swaddled in bedclothes and kissed. Her smear of greasiness leaving a damp imprint like a brand.
“Goodnight, sweetie, sleep well,” she said as if all was normal.
Her voice even in tone, as she fingered the trail of pearls choked at her neck.
I wondered will she call for help now. Did she want me out of the way while the doctor came? Sleep fell on me, drowning out the uncertainty.
It is at this precise moment during the last line of Hail Mary, pray for us sinners, now and at the end of our death, that I realise my part. I’m as guilty as her. I let him die choking in his drunken state. I had let her usher me to my room and let the sounds be drowned out by sleep. I too wanted to see him go. To have an end to the drunken rages, the strained atmosphere, the pitiful glances from the others in the village shops. I am her accessory. My bladder releases and I feel the hot scald of shame.
My grandmother takes me from the room to be cleaned up. “Not to worry, boy,” she says, as we climb the stairs to my bedroom. Her spindly hands take off my soaked through things. She places them in a sodden pile on the wooden floor, wipes me down with a dampened cloth and hands me clean clothes. I look at her properly for what feels like the first time. Her eyes are sunken holes, edged with spiky white lashes. Her mouth, a baby’s gummy gape.
The undertakers have finished with him and the body returns to the house late in the afternoon. I wonder what they have done to him. Perhaps they cleaned the vomit and dressed him in his good suit. The light has drained out of the day. Drapes are closed and candles are lit. Furniture rearranged to accommodate the coffin. I am called upon to pay my respects. He looks different. Dignified and composed. I am told to kiss his cheek, or else I will have nightmares, it’s the only cure they say. I reach up. I have to stand on my toes to lean over the dark wooden coffin and let my lips brush softly against his waxen pallor. I smell his old familiar sourness mixed with something new and feel sickened.
Men gather in the room. They speak in respectful tones. It seems my father has gained a dignity in death that he could never summon in life. They sit sober as if chastened by his demise. Conversation is strained. They talk of the weather. A biting frost has descended.
Hard work digging frozen earth.
They’ll have to break the ground with picks.
Hard to make neat work of it when its frozen. It’ll come off in plates.
We all end up in the two by six plot.
The women fuss about in the kitchen. They cluck and busy themselves with seemingly important tasks while the men are still. I do not know where I am expected to go. Some of the men slip me some coins. They pat my shoulder in consolation and I nod trying to look mournful.
The aroma of broth draws me away to find food. I am famished but have not wanted to bother asking anyone if I can eat. One of the women beckons me to the table. She makes room for me and demands that someone feeds me, ‘before he wastes away’. I am presented with warm bread and soup. My hunger heightens in response to the sight of the food.
She had to be sedated. Too much for her.
She always was highly strung.
You can say that again. My, what a commotion.
I listen, drinking in their babble. I can interpret their disapproval. My mother was always the talk of the town, as she liked to tell me. Her eyes would light up recounting some incident wherein she would have brought attention to herself. Her clothes and make-up set her apart from the beginning.
She would hold me close to her, telling me with glinting eyes, “They thought I walked straight off the movie screen.” She would laugh remembering her early days courting with my father. She was a city girl. The country life was too starchy, too parochial for her. She felt closeted and judged by them yet revelled in their disapproval. Her hats, her high heeled shoes, her coats with cinched in waists that drew attention to her shapely body, were wore with a stubborn pride.
The night falls and it is past my bedtime. I think of the night before. Was it only yesterday? My brain cannot absorb this slow passing of time that has concertinaed into a lifetime. I am told the adults will sit with the body, that the wake is underway. My grandmother has forbidden drink but the men are arriving with the smell of it on them. A flask of whiskey is passed round when she is out of sight.
My mother takes me to bed. She helps me undress and fold my clothes, placing them on the chair for the morning. The low rumble of prayers has begun from below again. She tucks me in, pulling the moss green candlewick bedspread under my chin and lowering herself down beside me. Her kiss finds my cheek and I turn away.
Sharon Dempsey’s crime debut Little Bird was released July 2017 with Bloodhound Books. Her contemporary fiction novels, My Virtual Life and A Posy of Promises, are published by Bombshell Books. She tutors at Queen’s University and Stranmillis College.
Sharon is working on the follow up to Little Bird and a collection of dark short stories.