by Fiona Whyte
A selection by guest editor Madeleine D'Arcy. To receive a PDF version of this story to read offline or export to Kindle, please email longstoryshortjournal(AT)gmail(DOT)com
A week after the funeral Kathleen went back to the cemetery. A mound of earth was heaped over her mother’s grave, sodden lumps of clay weighing heavily on the oak coffin, bearing it downwards to the other coffin, the one her father had lain in since 1952, almost twenty years ago now. Fading wreaths were scattered on top of the earth. Rainwater had caused the ink on the cards to run and the words trickled into each other, making them impossible to read. She thought she’d like to be buried here too, but it was out of the question. She and Billy had their plot in St. Raymond’s bought and paid for. That’s where she would be put to rest, St. Raymond’s in the Bronx, in a long line of white headstones with foreign earth and foreign flowers on top of her and the only thing to connect her to home would be the St. Christopher’s medal still hanging around her neck.
She was staying in her sister’s house in Ballyphehane and after the visit to the cemetery she returned there to do her packing, but she was restless. She threw her things into the suitcase without any care. Something had caught hold of her at the grave, had reached inside her and awoken a tremendous urge to go home once more. Now nothing would do to set it aright other than to head out at once for Ballinlough before it was too late. Mary Frances accompanied her, muttering all the while that Annie wouldn’t appreciate unexpected visitors.
Annie greeted them at the door with a teacloth in her hand. She was surprised, flustered even.
‘Well, I wasn’t expecting company,’ she said, as if this were explanation enough for leaving them standing on their own doorstep.
‘We won’t stay long, Annie, I guess,’ said Kathleen. She inched closer to the door.
‘To be honest, it was so busy the few times I was here, what with the funeral and all and meeting so many people, that I didn’t get a chance to take everything in and, well…’ – she looked past Annie, into the hall – ‘see all the lovely changes that you’ve made to the house.’
Annie drew her mouth into a smile. She hesitated a moment and took a small step back. Kathleen brushed past, her arm skirting lightly against Annie’s as she went by. Mary Frances followed, head bent somewhat, making her seem even tinier than her 4’11” frame.
Danny was sitting at the kitchen table, holding the Cork Examiner in front of him. At the sight of his two sisters, he closed and refolded it clumsily.
‘Well, well, what cheer. Sacred Heart, Kathleen, I thought we’d seen the back of you. Isn’t it early tomorrow you’re off? Mary Frances, what cheer. Sure you’re here as often as meself.’
Mary Frances laughed and gave a dismissive wave of her hand but Kathleen stood momentarily frozen as the ghost of her father slipped into the room, his time-worn phrase tripping lightly off Danny’s tongue. What cheer.
There was a child at the table too, one of the grandchildren, Kathleen guessed, a little girl in a school uniform, writing in a copybook. She didn’t look up.
‘This is Ruby,’ said Annie. ‘Marie’s eldest. She visits every Thursday. Ruby, say hello to your Grand Aunties.’
Ruby sighed and put the pen down. She looked directly at Kathleen. Ruby. What an unsuitable name for this scrawny child. She was small and thin, with a small, plain face, a boy’s face really, pale skin and some lonesome freckles around her nose. Her hair was mousy brown, long, limp and straggly with a too-long fringe that she kept pushing out of her eyes. The eyes, though, were large and bright, not quite blue and not quite green. They gleamed. Thomas’ eyes.
‘Hello,’ said Ruby. She kept looking at Kathleen and ignored Mary Frances who patted her on the head by way of greeting.
‘Are you the Grand Auntie from America?’ she asked.
‘Well, yes, I live in the States, New York City, but I’m from Cork, just like you. This is home, was home.’
‘Are you coming back to live here, then?’
Kathleen smiled. ‘No, too late now, I’m afraid.’
‘Ruby, don’t be bothering Grand Auntie Kathleen with too many questions,’ said Annie. ‘Are you finished your homework yet?’
‘Nearly. I just have to finish my story for English.’
‘She’s a great one for writing the compositions and stories,’ Annie said proudly. ‘The teacher is for ever getting her to read them out in front of the class.’
‘Sit down, Kathleen. Don’t be waiting for an invitation,’ said Danny. ‘Sure this is your home.’
Annie sniffed. Kathleen pulled a chair back from the table. Frances was already settling into hers. Danny set a match to a mound of twisted sheets of newspaper in the fireplace and threw a few lumps of coal on top.
‘I’ll boil the kettle for a pot of tea,’ said Annie. ‘Mind you, I suppose it’s coffee you’d prefer, Kathleen.’
‘Tea is fine, Annie. Just fine.’
Annie went into the back kitchen. Water from the tap could be heard fizzing furiously into the kettle. Cups and plates clattered onto a tray. The child returned to her work. Her handwriting was like herself, small and scrawny, and the page was splattered with tiny blotches. Kathleen wondered that Annie didn’t scold her for it. Her father would never have tolerated such sloppiness. She could see him at the table opposite her, nursing a cup of tea and a naggin of whiskey, keeping a watch over Thomas and her as they did their letters. He monitored them as they carefully inked words onto pages, rounding their Os as evenly as they could, forming quivering loops on their Gs and Ys. He wrote out sentences for them to copy – It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Keep the Home Fires Burning – and his handwriting was a thing of beauty, all elegant curls and flourishes. He made them repeat the exercise again and again. It was good discipline, he said, and would get them a job in the Civil Service, though that benefit had eluded him. Sometimes he beat Thomas if his letters were malformed, if their tails straggled or if a stray dot of ink spoiled a space between words, but that was only when he was out of sorts, after a bad night, maybe, when the ghosts of the Germans and Turks had come to pay a visit.
‘It’s been good to have you back again, Kathleen,’ Danny said.
Mary Frances nodded. ‘I never thought to see you again,’ she said, not for the first time that week. ‘You’re great for writing letters, I have every one you ever sent me, but sure it’s not the same as seeing someone flesh and bone, is it?’
‘It’s not,’ agreed Kathleen. ‘I wish you would get a telephone, Mary Frances. At least then we could talk.’
Danny and Mary Frances laughed and Kathleen felt that sense again, that fog that had come over her the minute the airplane had landed in Shannon. She was an alien here in her own home, as much as she had been when she stepped off the ship in Ellis Island. She half- expected that at any moment someone would come and draw symbols on her arm to indicate her status. C for conjunctivitis, TC for trachoma, X for suspected mental defect.
‘Sure with the waiting list, I’d be in the grave before it would arrive,’ said Mary Frances. ‘I wouldn’t even know what to do with it. And think of the expense!’
‘You’re not wrong there,’ said Danny.
‘And in an emergency all I need do is run in town to the exchange and the operator will make the call for me.’ And she and Danny chuckled again at the absurdity of it.
‘Anyway, Mammy would have appreciated it, you coming all the way,’ said Danny.
‘I hope so. It sure broke my heart not to come for Father’s funeral, but everything was different back then.’
She remembered the morning of the telegram, opening it, seeing first the slight upward slant of the lines, the wide gaps between the words, Regret to inform, as though spacing them out could prepare her for the news. She could hear Billy whistling in the diner downstairs while she read and reread the telegram. Father passed away peacefully, wanting to believe it, that he had just quietly and gently slipped away to a better place. Funerals were the worst times, Billy said later. His own mother had died the previous year.
Kathleen shook her head. ‘I had to come this time,’ she said. ‘I guess I would have always regretted it otherwise.’ She paused. ‘Did she mention me at all, you know, when she was bad?’
Danny hesitated. Annie came in, a tray of china cups and plates rattling in her hands.
‘Thomas,’ she said. ‘It was always Thomas she called for at the end.’
Danny sighed. ‘Ah, sure her mind was gone by then.’
The child stopped writing. ‘Who’s Thomas?’ she asked.
There was silence for a moment, as if out of sheer politeness no one wanted to assume it was their question to answer. Annie took charge.
‘Ruby, what did I tell you about asking questions? Finish your homework like a good girl.’ Then she added ‘Thomas was Grandad’s brother. He went to America with Kathleen.’
‘Is our brother,’ said Mary Frances and she looked at the others apologetically. ‘God is good. Thomas is our brother.’
‘So, The Trust don’t come anymore?’ Kathleen asked. She was on her third cup of tea from the good china. Annie said she had inherited it from her mother and it was released from the box under the bed only on special occasions. It had come out for the funeral, of course, and she was just about to rewrap it in newspaper before returning it to its designated home when Kathleen and Mary Frances arrived. Annie supposed they might as well use it because it wasn’t every day of the week they had visitors from America.
‘The Trust?’ said Danny. ‘They haven’t been for years. Not since they let us buy the house. They don’t even exist anymore, as far as I know.’
‘Who?’ asked the child. Ruby had finished her homework but she continued to hold the pen in her hand and roll it between her fingers. There was a blue stain at the corner of her mouth.
Kathleen put the china cup back on its saucer with a clang. ‘Have you never heard about The Trust?’
‘Fancy that. I can’t get it into my head that so much time has passed. You see, every six months the men from The Trust came to check that we were keeping the house properly, abiding by the rules and growing plenty of fruit and vegetables in the garden. If you didn’t keep the rules, The Trust could take the house back off you. Remember all the cleaning, Mary Frances?’
‘Sure, we used to be days at it, girl, emptying out cupboards, scrubbing every little corner of the house, and Father and the boys in the garden, making sure that not a single weed was to be seen the morning of the inspection.’
‘It was one mighty military operation,’ said Kathleen.
‘Well, those days are long gone,’ said Danny.
‘But why could the men take the house off you?’ persisted Ruby.
‘My word, child,’ said Kathleen. ‘I’d swear you don’t know at all how we got the house?’
‘Sure, that’s all ancient history,’ said Danny. ‘No one talks about those days anymore.’
But history, ancient and otherwise, was swimming through Kathleen now. She leaned forward and looked into Ruby’s not quite blue, not quite green eyes. ‘My father fought for this house. It was a reward for his service. He was a soldier in the Great War, a quartermaster sergeant, in fact, a hero, you could say. The only thing he ever did right was fighting, he used to say.’
‘Really? Who did he fight?’
Kathleen was beginning to wonder if for all of Annie’s boasting, her grandchild was a bit simple. ‘The Germans, of course, and the Turks. Don’t they teach you anything at school? He survived the Somme and Gallipoli, you know.’ She made her last pronouncement to all, as if somehow this were a fact that had been overlooked or forgotten. And then she noticed something. She stood up and walked over to the fireplace. The flames spluttered in the grate and threw out sparks that whizzed angrily past her before fizzing out and falling to the carpet. On the mantelpiece were two photographs, one of Annie and Danny on their wedding day, the other of their entire family, Annie at the centre in an armchair, Danny and the six children arranged neatly around her. The photograph of Kathleen’s father, the one of him in his uniform, rifle at his side, was gone. His medals, the Victory, British and 15 Star, which Kathleen’s mother had put in their own frame next to the photograph, had also been removed. It was as if he had been written out of his own house. When she turned around she made no effort to cover the tears in her voice.
‘They suffered, you know. All those men. Mammy used to say what happened was so terrible they could only talk about it in their dreams. It was the least they could do, the British government, I mean, build houses for the soldiers. It was the least they deserved, homes instead of trenches. I remember the day we moved in here. I thought I’d come to live in a palace. I couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere finer.’
‘And still you left,’ said Annie.
‘We’ll have a drop,’ said Danny. He was coming through from the back kitchen with a bottle of Hennessy’s and four glasses stacked one inside the other.
‘No thanks, Danny,’ said Kathleen. ‘I almost never drink.’
‘But you’ll have a drop now, sure,’ said Danny.
‘Honestly, the tea is fine.’
‘Oh, have a drink with us. Who knows when we’ll all be together again?’
‘But please God, we will,’ said Mary Frances. ‘All of us, please God. We’ll drink to that.’
Danny poured out four large brandies and handed them around.
‘Run in to the cupboard under the sink,’ said Annie to Ruby, ‘and you’ll find a bottle of red lemonade left over from the funeral.’
Dusk was beginning to fall and the fading light and flickering fire made the room seem the same as it had been all those years ago. They toasted their mother first.
‘She lived to a ripe old age, Lord have mercy on her,’ said Danny.
‘She was hanging on,’ said Mary Frances. ‘Hanging on. Always thinking that with the next letter there would be some news.’
‘Isn’t it a fright to God, all the same, that the same fella never wrote a single word, not even to his own mother?’ said Annie.
‘There was the postcard, don’t forget,’ said Danny.
Annie snorted. ‘I’m wronging him. Yes, there was the postcard and, in fairness, a single word. Ruby, take that biro out of your mouth.’
‘What word was it Nana?’
‘Just his name, pet,’ answered Annie. ‘Thomas.’
Danny raised his glass again. ‘We should drink to Father too,’ he said.
‘To Father,’ they said. They drank again and the brandy slipped down easily.
‘Father missed you, Kathleen,’ Danny said. ‘You know him, he never said much but he missed you.’
‘But we took good care of him,’ said Mary Frances. ‘Never you fear. And he understood. A clever girl like you, even if you did have a job in the Civil Service, sure the world was your oyster and weren’t you just like him, eager for travel and adventure? You didn’t lick it off the stones, that’s for certain.’
‘He gave me his St. Christopher’s medal when we were leaving. He said it kept him safe in the war.’ Kathleen felt for the medal at her breast, St. Christopher crossing the raging river, his burden, the Christ Child, on his back.
‘Did the nightmares ever ease?’ she asked, a foolish question that nobody answered. The nightmares were part of him. The Germans and Turks had invaded his soul, as had the Tommies and the men of the Leinster Regiment. They called on him at night, tormented him, demanded that he answer for his survival. He screamed out to them in his sleep, begged them to leave him alone, pleaded for peace. It was Kathleen’s job to slip downstairs, boil some water for a mug of tea and fill it halfway with whiskey. When she arrived back upstairs her mother would be sitting up in bed, holding her weeping husband in her arms. Kathleen would place his hands around the mug and help him lift it to his mouth. After a while, the sobs eased. Sometimes he needed a second cup to return to sleep, so Kathleen would wait to see if he settled, watch the tension run out of his body, as the Germans or whoever was visiting him retreated to a far corner of the room. Before she left, she taught Mary Frances how to make the whiskey-tea just right, but for years her nightmares were of her father’s nightmares, his waking alone, without anyone to make the brew to fend off the enemy.
‘America must have been good to you, Kathleen,’ said Annie. ‘I often thought of going myself. I had a sister and a brother there before me but I didn’t like to leave my poor mother, Lord rest her, and then...’
‘You met me,’ said Danny. They all laughed, even Annie.
‘I’ve had a good life, thank God,’ said Kathleen. ‘Billy and I weren’t rich but we weren’t poor either. The children all got a college education but it was hard at the start, real hard, and, well, it’s not home.’
‘What happened to Thomas?’ asked Ruby.
‘Thomas, well, he was handsome,’ said Mary Frances. ‘That head of blonde hair he had. And he was a right charmer, wasn’t he, Kathleen?’ Mary Frances’ face was glowing, warmed perhaps by the fire or the brandy or the sheer joy of the opportunity to relive the past. She lived alone and her letters to Kathleen, all cheer and chat, often trailed off on a lonesome note of longing.
‘He was indeed,’ said Kathleen.
‘And he had the gift of words. No wonder that girl fell for him,’ Mary Frances said. ‘An heiress, imagine that, Ruby. He married an heiress. Mammy could never get over it. She used to boast to the neighbours about Thomas marrying the daughter of a millionaire and having a big job in her father’s company. Nobody was good enough for the millionaire’s daughter except our Thomas. And they had a baby, as golden and sunny as himself. That’s what you said in your letters, Kathleen, wasn’t it?’
‘It was tragic, tragic. Sweet Heart of Jesus, the terrible sufferings of this world,’ said Mary Frances, simultaneously blessing herself and glaring on account of some great injustice.
‘We all have our crosses,’ said Annie.
‘What was tragic?’ Ruby leaned forward and tapped her pen on the table.
‘Never you mind,’ said Annie. ‘Like Grandad said, it’s all ancient history now.’
But Mary Frances could not be contained.
‘To throw a good man out of his own home. The scandal of it. And she called herself a Catholic!’
Danny refilled their glasses. ‘There’s no point in raking over old coals now. It’s done with.’ But a moment later he leaned away from Mary Frances, towards Kathleen. His voice was low.
‘Tell me, was drink involved?’
Kathleen, her eyes fixed on her glass, bent her head.
‘But whatever happened to Thomas?’ Ruby pushed her fringe out of her eyes and frowned at Kathleen.
‘Nobody knows,’ said Annie. ‘He just sort of disappeared, isn’t that right, Kathleen?’
‘We lost touch,’ said Kathleen.
‘If only he’d sent a letter, just to let us know where he was. Then Mammy could have written to him, as often as she liked. That would have been some consolation, at least.’ Mary Frances was tearful. ‘But she prayed for him, every day, always in the prayers of the living, never in the prayers of the dead.’
‘He was never one for writing,’ said Danny, ‘Not even when we were small.’ And it seemed to Kathleen that as dusk settled on the house and the fire grew low that each brother and sister could see again Thomas seated at the table, wiping the blonde hair back from his face with an inky fist, tears in his eyes and a red bruise forming on his cheek.
‘All the same,’ began Annie again.
‘It didn’t come easy to him,’ said Kathleen, suddenly. ‘It wasn’t natural for him, writing.’
‘Well all I can say then is this one here must have gotten her writing from my side of the family. She won first prize at essay writing in her school, didn’t you Ruby?’
‘I mean,’ said Kathleen, ‘it never came natural to him, no matter how hard he tried. His Bs turned out like Ds half the time, his Ps were like Qs and he could hardly join his letters at all. It was like a sickness with him. And a shame. Even when he was older, he couldn’t put a pen in his hand without trembling. Always he was trying to avoid it. He was never going to write a letter.’
‘I never knew it was that bad,’ said Mary Frances. ‘I mean we all knew he didn’t like doing his lessons, but sure isn’t that the way with all boys?’
‘Maybe Father was a bit hard on him,’ said Danny.
‘Father tried his best,’ said Kathleen. She added, ‘Sometimes your best isn’t good enough.’
When he had finished his drink Danny sang. He sang ‘There’s a Long, Long Trail’, his tenor voice richer and more tremulous than Kathleen remembered. At the second verse, the women joined in softly.
All night long I hear you calling,
Calling sweet and low;
Seem to hear your footsteps falling,
Ev'ry where I go.
Tho' the road between us stretches
Many a weary mile,
I forget that you're not with me yet
When I think I see you smile.
Danny acknowledged the applause with a wave of his empty glass and said 'Now, Father, there was a voice for you. As rich as gold and deep as a river.'
‘And Thomas, he inherited the gift. Oh, he should have been on the stage,’ said Mary Frances. ‘With that voice, he could have put Count McCormack out of business.’
‘Who’s Count McCormack?’ The child stirred. Kathleen had thought her asleep, leaning against her grandmother’s arm, close to the fire.
‘A great singer, pet,’ answered Annie. ‘Though apparently not as great as Thomas.’
‘I often thought,’ said Mary Frances, ‘that he might come back after he had that bit of trouble. I wondered what there was for him in New York with his wife and child gone and he no longer working for the father-in-law. Mammy was full sure he would come back. Sure he only went because you took him, Kathleen, wasn’t it?’
Kathleen drained her glass. ‘Oh, it’s all so long ago but no, I guess I don’t remember it that way. Mammy wanted to think I was taking Thomas for company and, well, I didn’t change her mind for her.’ She placed the glass on that table and pushed it away from her. It caught the light from the fire and glowed golden and warm. She stared into it. ‘There was a day, a bad day for Father, after a bad night, and Thomas said he wouldn’t do the Civil Service examination, couldn’t do it he said. Father was, well, he was upset. Things were said and Thomas, he got beaten...’
‘Now, now,’ warned Danny. ‘Cool head, cool head,’ and he glanced at the child. ‘Ancient history. Old coals.’
Kathleen sighed. ‘Yes. It’s all past now. The upshot of it was he asked me to help him with the fare for New York and to come with him. There was nothing for him here, he said, and so many opportunities for us both across the way. And you’re right, Mary Frances, it was an adventure, but I always thought I’d come back myself, and well, it just didn’t happen.’ And there was a long silence as they stared into their glasses, the remnants of the family, watching the room fill up with all the lost moments in their own lives where things might have been different.
Kathleen lingered over the third brandy. She placed the glass on the table. ‘Excuse me for a few moments,’ she said. ‘I must use the ladies’ room.’ She closed the kitchen door behind her and turned slowly to the stairs. She leaned on the banister. The stairs seemed to have grown narrower and more uneven in the forty years since she had last climbed them and her feet less sure. Halfway up, on the left and in the shadows, something distracted her and she almost slipped. It was a picture, a photograph, she supposed, faded and slightly crumpled behind a glass frame. But now that she looked more closely, she could see it wasn’t a photograph at all; it was an old postcard of the Statue of Liberty. She ran her fingers over the glass and a thin veil of dust clung to them. She felt a familiar slice of pain. How could she have forgotten when so many other memories stayed clear, sharpening their claws in her head? They’d bought a couple of postcards, soon after the ship had docked. Kathleen was fretting about her mother fretting about them. She persuaded Thomas to buy the postcards from an Italian man who had a kiosk at the corner of Summit Avenue. She penned a few sentences on hers, arrived safely, journey uneventful, and so on. Thomas scrawled his name in large, uneven letters, handed the card to her, gazed up at the buildings, all vying with each other to reach the sky. He had arrived. Kathleen clasped the cards to her chest and longed for home.
She turned her back on the bathroom and headed into the boys’ room. She moved quietly, stepping over the floorboard that used to creak. A double bed had replaced the single one that Danny and Thomas had slept in and it was covered with a floral patterned quilt instead of a few rough blankets. There was a wardrobe in the corner where once there were wooden crates to store the boys’ things. Next to the window was a dresser with a large mirror and an array of hairbrushes and curlers, powders and creams on top. On the windowsill was a vase of plastic flowers. The room was tidy, noiseless. It wasn’t right. Nothing was right. Kathleen thought if she closed her eyes for a moment, she might hear Thomas calling to her, demanding that she give him a ride on her back, carry him downstairs for tea, to be sure not to let him fall. Don’t let me fall.
She opened the door to her own room, hers and Mary Frances’. There was another new bed, a single one this time, but it was larger than the one she and Mary Frances used to sleep on. There was a chest of drawers too, which had seen better days but was still new. There was wallpaper on the walls and though it was yellowing and peeling in places, it made the room seem grander than before. She went to the window and peered out. In the dusk she could just make out below the rows and rows of vegetables and blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes and the two apple trees her father had planted.
And another memory came to her, unbidden and unwanted. Thomas at the window, standing on the windowsill, window open wide. The wind was leafing through his blonde curls. He jigged up and down and pointed to the trees below. He was two, perhaps three, years old. She moved quietly to the window, stood on the box that he must have used as a step, put her arms around his waist and hauled him back in. She saved him. She had saved him then. She said nothing about the incident. It had been her job to mind Thomas that day while Mammy went to the army office to pick up Father’s wages. All she had to do was keep an eye on him for the short while that Mammy was out and yet somehow her eye had strayed. Every now and then the memory of it would still sneak up and bite at her, a savage thing, the terror of her near failure, the image of little Thomas slipping from her and falling, falling.
The last room was the least changed of all. The fireplace in which no fire ever burned still mocked the cold air. The washstand with enamel basin still stood by the window. She went through the room slowly, almost on tiptoe, as if somehow she might find her mother there in the bed, fingering her rosary beads, still waiting for her and Thomas to return. She sat on her parents’ bed, the bed her mother died in, and felt it sink beneath her. How much heavier she was now than when she last sat on it, holding her mother’s hand, trying to persuade her to get up, trying to let her pleas wash over her. Don’t take Thomas. Bad enough to lose one child to America. My heart is broken. Don’t take Thomas. Leave him be. And then, as she turned to go, as she stood in the doorway of the bedroom, the surrender. Make sure he comes to no harm, Kate. I’m trusting him to you.
It was dark and automatically she stood up and reached to the mantelpiece for a match to light a candle, but there was no match and no candle. Suddenly the room was filled with a harsh white light. The child stood at the door.
‘Nana sent me to see if you were alright.’
Of course she did.
‘I’m just taking a last look around. Nothing to worry about. After all, this was my home too.’
‘Until you went to New York. With Thomas.’ Ruby sat on the bed. She fidgeted with her ink-stained fingers. ‘What happened to Thomas?’
Kathleen sat next to her, staring straight ahead. ‘Who knows? Who can ever say what happens to anyone, but try and pick their way through the bits and pieces and find the story in them. You like stories, don’t you? I could tell you a story about Thomas, if you like, but it’s only a story.’
The child looked straight ahead too. ‘Tell me,’ she said.
‘Thomas,’ Kathleen began. ‘Everyone loved Thomas. It couldn’t be helped. He was Mammy’s favourite, her darling. Someone said once that being with Thomas was like stepping out of a dark room into the sun. That was Gracie, the girl he married. They met on the boat over. She was travelling with her father. He had taken her to Ireland to visit his family and to show her off, I suppose, and his wealth. I could hardly believe that a man like that would let the likes of Thomas court his daughter, but he told Thomas he was happier to see his only child with a Corkman like himself, rather than some German or Italian or, worse still, a Jew. And Thomas was charming.’
Kathleen glanced at Ruby. The child was still looking straight ahead, nodding slowly, willing her to continue.
‘Thomas loved New York. He wanted to climb to the top of the tallest building, drive a motorcar, listen to music called jazz and eat in swanky restaurants. It was a different tale for me. New York just loomed at me. All that time on the boat and I hadn’t been seasick once but those buildings climbing into the clouds, they made my stomach lurch. I wanted to go home so bad, it was like someone had torn out a piece of my heart. I didn’t know what I was doing there.’
‘What were you doing there?’
‘Well, mostly I was working in Billy’s Diner, a far cry from the Civil Service. Thomas was working for Gracie’s father, earning his trust. I went to New York, why? To have an adventure? To work in a diner? I went just because Thomas asked me, I suppose, because my whole life I had minded him and he had needed me and I thought the distance would make things better between him and Father, but in no time here we were, me working all the hours God sent in Billy’s Diner and him married to Gracie and out every night of the week.’
‘Didn’t you see him anymore?’
‘Sometimes he came around, always late and always the worse for wear. I was cross with Thomas then because he had no need to be in that state, with his lovely wife and new baby and good job. It wasn’t right, was it? He wasn’t like Father, being chased by Germans and Turks every night and frowned on by his own people who wouldn’t give him a job, all because he’d served in the British army. But then Thomas came one night and said that Gracie had thrown him out. It was the drink, you see, it caught hold of him, worse than any German or Turk, and wouldn’t let go. Even though he’d no reason to be drinking, he couldn’t not be drinking. The only thing he could do right was drink, he said. He couldn’t even write a letter, couldn’t hold down a job. Gracie’s father had fired him months before.’
‘What then?’ The child spoke softly. She looked at Kathleen, her eyes, Thomas’ eyes, asking for more and now something within Kathleen was unravelling and couldn’t be reset. Her tongue, as her mother would have said, was running away with her.
‘He used to come in late. I’d hear the key scratching at the lock until it clicked its way in and then the groan of the door as it gave way and the smell of my father’s breath stealing into the room. Some nights he didn’t come back at all. And I’d be so tormented with worry I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, so I’d get up and write a letter home. Once I wrote that Thomas and Gracie were living apart for a while but that I was sure everything would be alright when he was working again. Mary Frances wrote me back to say that poor Mammy had taken to the bed, the shock had nearly killed her. So then I wrote letters to say that Thomas was doing better and had a job and sent his best love, even though I was making a terrible liar of myself, but we all do that, don’t we, tell the stories we have to?’
Ruby nodded. ‘Nana says that’s called a white lie.’
‘Exactly. You understand. Thomas started saying it was all up with him and New York, that as soon as he could get the money together he’d head off for California. He started disappearing, for days on end, even longer. Then one night, there came the knock, a cop, an Irishman from Fermoy, practically a neighbour. A man had caused a stir down on Webster Avenue, the cop said. He’d been buying drinks for everyone in Mulligan’s, telling the whole bar they wouldn’t be seeing him again because tomorrow he was going back home to Cork to the fine house his father had fought for and he was never leaving again. And they all drank whiskey and cheered him on. And then, then he went outside and climbed up the fire escape of the building next door.’
Kathleen sighed. She wrapped her fingers around the St. Christopher’s medal and slid it back and forth on its chain.
‘Billy from the diner went with me to identify the body. He put his arm around me and held onto me so tightly when they tried to make me look at Thomas. And I think it was Thomas, even though his body was broken and his handsome face was crushed, because the fall did no harm to his lovely blonde hair. But much later I wondered because I never saw his eyes.
‘Always I tell myself that he fell. He was drunk and he just fell but that cop, well, he said Thomas jumped. That was his story.
‘My story is Thomas drifted away from me, moved to California where he had the offer of a great job and since he wasn’t a letter writer we just lost touch. That’s the one I wrote home and maybe that’s the true one. Maybe one day he’ll walk in the door of Billy’s Diner and Billy will call me down from our apartment and say, “Kate, look who’s shown up after all these years” and I’ll write home to say that Thomas is well and happy and sends his best love.’ She sighed.
‘There now. That’s a fine story for you now, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Ruby. ‘It’s a good story.’
‘You head on down now,’ Kathleen said. ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’
Ruby slid off the bed and headed for the door. Kathleen called after her.
‘The story, it’s just for you. You understand, don’t you?’
Ruby looked at Kathleen. Her eyes glinted, but she nodded.
Kathleen stopped on the stairs to look at the postcard. She took the St. Christopher’s medal from her neck and hung it around the picture. Downstairs Danny was singing again but softly, to himself. Mary Frances and Annie were in the back kitchen, washing the glasses. Ruby sat at the table, picked up her pen and tapped it against the bottle of brandy.
‘Father used to say that in the army they shot deserters,’ said Kathleen. ‘Proper order, too, he said.’
‘They were harsh times,’ said Danny. ‘Best left back then, if you ask me. Let them rest, for God’s sake. That’s what I say anyway, instead of rousing up old ghosts, disturbing the living and the dead. Let them rest.’
‘Perhaps you’re right.’
They left in the dark to get the last bus. Danny and Annie stood at the gate and waved goodbye. Ruby was to stay the night and had been sent to bed. Mary Frances linked her arm through Kathleen’s. She was slightly tipsy and Kathleen guessed she was glad to have a companion to steer her home. They crossed the road to the bus stop. The gate snapped shut behind them.
Fiona Whyte is a writer living in Crosshaven, Co. Cork. Her short stories have been published in Crannóg Magazine, Quarryman and The Hollybough and have been shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Competition, the Listowel Originals competition and the Cork City Library K Award. She has won the Tipperary Premier Short Story Competition. In 2016 she was awarded a Government of Ireland Postgraduate scholarship to pursue a PhD in creative writing at University College Cork. She is currently writing a novel.