There are fat green strawberries growing on the windowsill in the baking sun. The dry heat from the radiator underneath has made the clay as fine and powdery as sand. She uses the stale water from the jug to drench the parched leaves. The room is full today. There are a bunch of bodies and bags nestled together on the bed. Half-cups of tea and melted biscuits dot the carpet. It is a pilgrimage. Her uncle, with the long face, and the suit hanging off of him, steadies the cup on his knee with a large hand. His cancer is never mentioned, as if to give no credence to the unnamed. He is the historian, the keeper of the archive—gleaned from dialogue and recall, and the still-youthful faces in the sepia photographs. He has documented and collated the memories of his family for generations. His wife has put another dark rinse in her hair, and her roots are orange. Her sallow face is lined and creased, like a soft paper bag that has been folded and refolded many times. He tells the story of them as children, out on the Barrow path on a fine summer evening. Cycling three abreast, they had rounded a corner, and collided with an elderly gent taking a refined constitutional.
“We took the two shins off him with the pedals.”
There are people sitting like crows on a washing line, watching me. When I grow tired of watching their mouths move, I close my eyes and go back down. Nancy D is below swinging on the gate. Why is Siobhan always making apple tarts Mrs. Dooley? Oh, you’d a good innings alright. Break yourselves, but don’t break the furniture. Hit her again Brud, she’s no relation. She had a baby beyond in England, and gave it away. Who burst your ball? Rise and shine. Them are they. I am being lifted onto a chair. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. Oh Angel of God, my guardian dear, I promised not to tell. I’m like the wreck of the Hesperus, without a screed of makeup on. Bella won it, and Bella will keep it. Heck the beds, getting in the window coming late from the last dance in Tullow. Goodnight Dick. Whisht Nellie, excuse me May. Tom standing at the doorway in his pajamas, wagging his finger across the smoke-filled room.
The doorbell shook her from reverie. She looked at her brother in disbelief, as he stood banging the snow off his boots onto her wooden floor. He was moving from foot to foot, like a dog with an itch he can’t scratch. He had been defending his inability to visit.
“Jesus … I just can’t look at it, I can’t cope,” he offered.
She arched an eyebrow at him.
“Since when do we have a monopoly on coping?”
This six-foot man-child, this blue-eyed boy, this giant baby, who sat sobbing into the cold ash of a dead fire, while his children slept above him dreaming of childish things. This favorite son—this only son—can’t do it.
She watches him pour coffee, and sit awkwardly to roll a cigarette. She notices the hair at his temples is gray, and she wonders when that happened. Where is the smiling, plump boy practicing his wink? She wonders when they grew up—can they go around again? Please sir, I was only messing—can we go again? He can’t—or won’t—look at her, and sits grunting monosyllabically to the tidbits she drip-feeds him. The afternoon is measured out in coffee cups, and it is dark as night at four o’ clock.
“I’m going to head off—I’ve got a thirst you could photograph, and the tide is out.”
Always highly strung that one. Hysterical for nothing. Thinks she has no friends, and looks up at me with her tear-stained face. Am I ugly Mam? Laughing turns to crying. Mind the house, you’d rise a row in a barrack of soldiers. You’re as safe as a house on fire. She was up, smelling the clothes in the wardrobe, as if we were gone for all time. Overreacting. Overacting. Breda in the pantomime saying—oh she’s greased the boards before, but she is pure ham—playing to the gallery. At the strawberry fair, a country man saying she’s a fine lump of a child, and her head against the window crying all the way home. The fat one has me pulled and hauled. She drops me, and I lie sideways in the hallway, with my glasses hanging off, while her face whitens. There is music in the sun room—always playing, while the woman in white, with the tobacco-and-mint breath, sings loud into my face. Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low … I pretend to be asleep.