The outer door is heard to clatter shut at more or less the expected time, but the small girl who comes into the kitchen is alone.
The girl removes her satchel from her back and balances it, awkwardly, on a kitchen chair. Subtly, its leather strap snakes toward the side of the chair. It is as though trying to distance itself unobtrusively from the body of the satchel, but this teeters and then tumbles down onto the tiles, dragging the snaking strap after it.
As it impacts the floor, upside-down, the satchel gapes and erupts pens and school-books. Frowning after the manner of an adult, the small girl bends to gather up the spillage.
‘Jessica, where’s Aisling? Isn’t she with you?’
The girl is looking crossly at the unhinged lid of her pencil-case and answers only by a tart swivelling of her head.
‘I asked you a question, young lady! ls Aisling not with you?’
The girl is still ostensibly vexed at the unhinged lid of her pencil-case, and answers in a sulk, declining to look around at the mother’s voice. Her pigtails swing about with the words.
‘She was meant to be with the twins!’
Crossly spoken. With reluctance, as though the girl were stating what is self-evident.
High heels click-clack across the porcelain surface of tiles.
Instantly, through the membrane of the ceiling, the percussion of stockinged feet running across the carpeted floor. A door is heard to open, but hesitantly.
The mother waits for a moment before calling upstairs. ‘Jessica says that Aisling was to come home with you two!’
The feet, unrhymed, are once again scurrying, this time as far as the head of the stairs.
‘Cian, Jessica says that Aisling was to come home with you.’
She stands out into the hallway and looks upwards to where the boy is breathing in hurried spasms. Three steps higher up, the face of his twin sister, not identical, is pressed to the banister. The boy’s eyes are opened into two globes.
‘She was – with Una – Mahaffy!’
The voice is uneven because her son is asthmatic. His eyes dilate a fraction more, and he adds, ‘she was – never supposed to – come home with us!’
‘Did she say she was going home with Una Mahaffy? Did you ask her was she going home with her?’
The head swivels about towards that of the twin sister, then back through the banisters. The eyes are still opened preternaturally wide.
‘She was playing with her. With Una Mahaffy.’ And with creased forehead he clarifies, ‘- in the yard.’
‘Yes, but did you talk to her? Did you ask her?’
‘Hello, hello, Rita?’
‘This is Julie Quigly.’
‘Yes, listen, Rita. I was just wondering, has Una come in yet?’
‘Not at all! Listen, Rita? I was wondering, could you do me a small favour?’
‘Yes. Could you just give me a ring as soon as Una gets in, that’s all?’
‘Oh, no! Nothing like that!’
‘You’re sure you don’t mind?’
‘Listen, thanks a million. Goodbye, now.’
‘Thanks, Rita. Bye.’
The phone is watching. It is coiled. It is waiting to be sprung by the return call.
And in the interim a fistful of dough is pulled out of a mixing bowl and squeezed tightly. The woman’s fingers have been dampened in another bowl, this one filled with water the surface of which trembles at her every movement. Behind the two bowls, not entirely obscured, sleeps a kitchen knife.
When the ball of dough is worked and compressed she slaps it onto a flour-whitened board. It is rolled, flattened out. The pastry is pummelled, rolled again, lifted, laid over the surface of a casserole, tucked in at the edges. Then the woman sprinkles a very slight snow of flour, and with a metal fork she sets tracks that are not unlike the print of some winter bird into the floured surface.
But all this is mechanical.
The eye is fixed on the silence of the phone that clings onto the wall.
Now her hand, fingers still whitened, hovers uneasily in the vicinity of the bone-coloured receiver. ls it too soon to call again?
But all at once the telephone erupts into shrill alarm. The trill, nervous, sounds upwards into the air like a dangerous insect. A second trill almost has time to rise after it.
‘I see. Just now. And, ehm, Rita? I was wondering, Aisling isn’t with her?’
‘Not at all, no. Nothing to be alarmed…’
‘No. It’s just that Cian said that he’d seen them together.’
‘Yes, if you don’t mind. Thanks, Rita. I’ll hang on … ‘
There is silence gathering upstairs, a weighty silence, unbroken except for the sound of a cistern filling, this and the faint, sharply regular breath through the banisters.
She has cradled the receiver between ear and neck and is rooting through her handbag. Three fine white streaks of flour scathe its leather body.
She is trying to locate a small pocket address book.
She is trying to interpret the tiny sounds that she might discern at the other end of the telephone.
‘I see. She didn’t… ?’
‘No, not at all. No.’
‘Yes. I’m sure that’s it.’
‘That must be it. Listen, thanks a million, Rita.’
‘No I’m sure…’
‘I will, of course!’
‘Bye now. Bye.’
Outside and under the vast evening.
The air is cooling. The air is losing its light.
‘Cian. Run over to Melissa O’Byrne and ask her if she’s seen Aisling. Hurry on, now’
‘Emer. You mind Jessica. That’s a good girl.’ And to answer the searching eyes, ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
Eyes shut, open. Calmly, for the love of God!
‘Emer, don’t answer the door. Not unless you know who it is. Sure you won’t love?’
The grasses are tossing about like the mane of some hunkered animal. There is an edge to the wind. ‘AISLING!’
The light has thinned out still further. The sky has become a silver foil, luminous through the leafless twigs of the hedge.
At the second gate a blackbird, startled, threads through the evening brambles with gurgling alarm call.
Numb silence of the fields.
And the child’s voice at her waist:
A pair of car’s headlights whiten the hedgerow into a petrified arc and then strike blindly across them. A gravel sound, the wheels shirking to a halt.
Then it seems a mask-like face is instantaneously straining out of the opened window, craning right at them, a face like a child’s caricature of Melissa O’Byrne.
‘Julie, I heard! Have you tried the school?’
Crimson lipstick and dark lines of mascara behind the horn-rimmed glasses, a grotesque parody so poor is the light.
‘You’d never know. She might have stayed behind with one of the teachers.’
‘But surely they would have rung me to say so!’
‘But it’s worth a try, Julie. Do you not think? If only so as to find out who she was with before she left.’
The hesitation. The worried glance along the ditch, along the field.
‘Come on! It won’t take five minutes to drive down as far as the school. You must be frozen out there, the pair of you.’
Her own hesitation is agony to her.
‘No, I… ‘
‘But at the school at least you’ll be able to ask them! Do you not think? And if they don’t know anything, then at least they’ll be able to come on out here and help you look.’
A last glance back toward the fields. Melissa O’Byrne’s hand is already opening the car-door for them.
Now it is all but dark.
A single star, bright, low to the West. A thin moon, like a shaving taken from a thumbnail.
The wind has a keen edge to it by this time. It wrinkles the surface water that lies in flat pools to the sides of the fields. It tosses the tufts of greyed grasses. It sifts the hawthorn hedges.
All across the fields fingers of light stretch out from restless hand-torches.
Her child’s name echoes about the twilight, across this field, across the next. It echoes as far as the canal. In various pitches. In unknown voices.
Fingers of white light probe among the roots, probe along the ditchwater. In their livid circles of light, the jagged edges of cans take on the proportions of a disaster.
A black rag of plastic fluttering, caught on a barb of wire. A bird, erupting from its nest.
Then, only once but prolonged, there sounds the brittle pitch of a referee’s whistle. It is somewhere over to the left. It is uncomfortably shrill.
The whistle is shrill as the needle that is cocked next to a balloon.