Today, a woman sits on the porch of her holiday cottage and looks out across Lough Swilly. She—Kathleen—is an older sort of woman, closer to seventy than sixty, a little on the stout side now. She looks like a grandmother and she more or less is one. Her sons and her daughter—all married, all sprinkled around Derry—they know that they can call on Kathleen at any time to look after her grandchildren. She is widowed; she must have time on her hands. And they do call on her, frequently.
This cottage is her own place. She and her husband Peter bought it way back in the early Seventies and now it is hers alone. It is small, by today’s standards at any rate, with no sign of modernisation. No new plumbing, people think as they stroll by on the coastal footpath, no en suites. Unacceptable furniture can be spotted: a sofa covered in a hairy throw, a laminate-topped kitchen table shifted from home, bentwood chairs picked up at auction years ago for half-nothing. Not much else. Not bad furniture—not at all bad—only a little scarred by the years.
The house might have no en suites, but it does possess a view: across the beach below the house to the waters of the fjord- like lough and over to the hills beyond, which can be soft blue, depending on the day, or sharp and immediate green, or lost altogether in veils of rain. Kathleen comes here to look at this view, and also—frankly—to get away from her family. Today, though, this overcast Donegal day, the hills opposite almost hidden by low cloud—today her grandchildren have pursued her. Two of them, building a complicated dam on the stream that curves across the beach, throwing up embankments of sand and smoothly polished brown stones to hold back the water. And Conor, her youngest son, the children’s father, sitting beside her on the old porch. He is clad in what, to her, looks like fancy dress: a dismaying rugby shirt in large blue and red and white checks that makes him look like a jester. Expensive, but it looks cheap and nasty; it has the air of a sweatshop about it.
Conor says now, with a touch of asperity: ‘A new deck. What about a new deck?’
‘Not in Donegal,’ Kathleen says. ‘Have you seen those decks that people put down? Covered in moss within ten minutes. I’d break my neck just stepping out of my own front door.’
‘Well,’ Conor says, hardly pausing to listen, ‘you should do something about the plumbing at the very least. And do up the bathroom. You should get a walk-in shower,’ he says, now trying out fear as a new strategy. In case you fall one day—he implies but does not say—when you are here on your own and break your hip and have to lie in agony with nobody to help you.
Kathleen is interested in this, in this new suggestion of a broken hip. Conor is pleased, she can tell, with the idea. He, his brothers, his sister, up to this moment have been appealing to her reasonable side. Do the house up, buy some furniture, make it more desirable. It’ll have to be done at some point, so it might as well be now. But now, assuming that she no longer has a reasonable side, they have altered the angle of attack.
She looks out at the view and considers this spectral broken hip for a moment. She cannot imagine it any more than she can imagine the new deck, the gleaming en suite, the myriad other changes that have been put forward in recent months. Because the fact is that she and Peter had bought this house out of love and for no other reason. And you could fall in love with a place and with bricks and mortar: you could, because they had; that was what they had done. Kathleen says this, but only to herself, because it is not at all the sort of thing she can say aloud. Not to anyone these days and especially not, it seems, to her own children.
‘I’ll think about it,’ she says.
Thirty years ago in Derry, on a murky morning a few days before Christmas, Kathleen is making breakfast for her family. The three older ones may be already peeling off a little but they still expect their breakfasts to be ready for them when they come downstairs on school mornings. And Conor the fourth, another boy: there had been a gap of five years before he came along, and so he was imagined as the afterthought of the family, although this was in fact not the case at all.
A usual morning. Kathleen fills the kettle for the second time and gazes out into the sodden garden, where rain and bitter winds have been wreaking havoc for days. It is the same old breakfast time: the fluster and hurry of each morning, the bawling at the older children to get them out of bed. She turns from the dark morning to the brilliantly lit kitchen, to Peter rapidly spooning the porridge from his bowl, to Conor, who has finished his breakfast and who is now sitting on the stairs. He is seven and can get his own breakfast now, even if he can’t yet cut his own sandwiches for lunch.
To the usual news on the radio. Overnight, they’ve been killing each other in Vietnam. It’s nearly the end for the South Vietnamese and she knows it, everyone knows it. The Commies are coming, the Commies are going to win and there isn’t a thing that anyone can do to stop them. The Commies keep the morning news sounding pretty racy.
Of course there have been other killings overnight too, different killings, rather less racy killings closer to home. No top billing for them, though—not any more; even Kathleen is tired of hearing about overnight killings in Belfast and sometimes here in Derry too. She would rather hear about the Viet Cong any day.
She has been thinking a good deal about Vietnam lately. She approves, she has realised, of the Viet Cong. Quietly, secretly approves: you can’t go about broadcasting such opinions. But the Viet Cong know what they’re about. They don’t let anyone stand in their way. You have to admire them, godless Commies and all as they are, and you could learn a thing or two from them too.
Now, she looks at Conor, sitting on the second-from-bottom step on the stairs. His lips are moving silently.
‘Did you get enough breakfast, love?’
He nods. He has more important things to think about this morning, like rehearsing his line in the school Nativity play. The older children appear and breakfast goes on.
‘Does anyone want porridge?’ Kathleen asks, as she asks nearly every morning. ‘Porridge with prunes?’ Everyone wants cereal, nobody wants porridge, nobody wants porridge with prunes—but Kathleen always asks anyway. It is important to irritate her children from time to time; it demonstrates to them that she is more than simply a breakfast- making machine. She thinks: I should know better. No need to ratchet up the tension and the hassle. Breakfast is an emotional enough time of the day without adding to it all.
So it is too. And this morning Kathleen has to take them to school because Peter has a meeting in Omagh, and this adds even more fluster than usual. And Christmas in three days and she has shopping to do. She sighs and turns to the sink and throws a glance at Conor from time to time. He’ll be playing a Wise Man.
And I have brought you myrrh.
This is his line and he is saying it, over and over. An easy line to learn, of course, and the only line to learn, but he has to get it right. Or rather: there will be hell to pay if he gets it wrong. Mrs Doherty will be after him if he gets it wrong, just as she has done in the past. She’ll come after him with her metre ruler—sweeping down past the other desks in the classroom with her ruler in her right hand, to get stuck into him. From time to time, Conor has described exactly how Mrs Doherty has got stuck into him and now Kathleen can imagine these scenes as if she had been there herself. Of course, she knows all about it: the nuns used to beat her black and blue at school too, in Donegal not too long ago, hauling her up by her ear lobe, hissing. She remembers it very well. But you expect better from teachers these days—although you don’t often get it. She has always felt she could do something about this situation, she and Peter, but they never have. When it comes down to it, they hesitate to rock the boat.
And I have brought you myrrh. Well, Conor knows the line anyway. She scrapes the last of the porridge out of the saucepan and into the bin and the children push their lunchboxes into their schoolbags, ready at last, and Peter says a hasty goodbye as his lift arrives. But Mrs Doherty really gives Kathleen pause for thought sometimes. Maybe she should take a leaf out of the Viet Cong’s book, give the boat a good old rock from time to time, see what happens.
As she locks the house, she glances up the hill, watching as their next-door neighbour watches them. Mr Armstrong, a bank manager, dour and liverish, has lived in this street for years, and never speaks to anyone in Kathleen’s family, except to grizzle or shout if a football flies over his garden wall.
‘Never a word out of him,’ Kathleen sometimes says to Peter in the evenings. ‘Never so much as a good morning.’ Which is his problem, of course, but still—it upsets her more than she likes to admit. ‘A dog has better manners than that man does.’
Also, Mr Armstrong has stuck lots of little pieces of glass onto the top of the garden wall. They came back from holidays last summer to see these little shards firmly embedded in fresh cement, sparkling in the sun. Done, according to Mr Armstrong, to stop the boys from hopping over and getting their ball back without asking permission.
‘Keep the football out?’ Peter said to her, low, as they lay in bed that first night. ‘Keep the Catholics out, more likely.’ And that’s the thing. The Catholics are on the march these days, as everyone knows, moving into areas where they’d never have dared move before. And of course people like Armstrong, who had thought they would never live to see such a family appear next door—well. Suffice to say that the likes of the Armstrongs are not pleased, exactly, about the new arrangements.
Now, this squally morning, Armstrong stands watching them from his front door as his boxer dog goes to the toilet on the lawn. Kathleen and Peter had decided, after the third or fourth bruising conversation with him, that it would be better just not to speak to him at all. If he can’t cope with the barbarians at the gates—well, that’s up to him. So, this morning, Kathleen glances away again and unlocks the car doors.
‘In you all get. Time we were moving.’
The older children are dropped off first. Near Conor’s primary school, the road passes through the new housing estate, the road surface changing from regular black tar into square, white slabs of concrete laid end to end. The wheels rapidly bump, bump over the cracks in the concrete. The pale, pebble-dashed new houses of the estate seem to have been just flung across the fields, like Lego bricks scattered on the floor. Raw, although the painters have been busy already: Brits Out, painted hugely in green and white on a gable wall next to the school.
‘Brutes out,’ Conor had piped from the back seat on the first day it had been painted. ‘That’s a good thing to say, Mammy, isn’t it?’ Kathleen had shrunk from explaining and sure, he would learn soon enough besides. She isn’t even from this part of the world, after all, and sometimes the explanations feel altogether too much for her.
She brings the car to a stop outside the back entrance of the primary school.
‘Now, love, give me a kiss and off you go.’
Conor leans between the front seats and kisses her temple. ‘I’ll see you tonight, love.’
‘I’ll see you tonight, Mammy.’
He scrambles out of the car and off towards the gate, turns and waves and passes through the gate and is gone to join his friends. She watches all the little boys shove each other and imagines them talk about Christmas presents. There are little girls pouring through the gate too, and they carefully skirt the pushing boys and head off to their own playground in their own part of the school. And then the headmaster—Conor’s headmaster, with whom Peter had such a very unsatisfactory conversation only last week—appears at the door of the boys’ school and begins to toll the bell in his hand. Kathleen sighs, and then puts the car cautiously into gear and takes off again. There is nothing to be done about anything, she sometimes thinks, except probe carefully and act cautiously. Avoid giving offence, no matter how offensive other people are. More and more, it goes against the grain.
A few weeks before, Mrs Doherty had taken the blue metre ruler to Conor. The reason given was that he couldn’t do his long multiplication. Not that this had been his fault: Conor had been off sick when the class was taught long multiplication for the first time. He had been off for a whole week, in fact—but Mrs Doherty seemed to have forgotten this, judging from the vicious raps she gave his knuckles with the ruler’s sharp edge.
‘She hit me once when I made a mistake and then she hit me twice when I made another mistake,’ Conor reported after school and he held out his bruised knuckles. ‘And then she made me hold my hand out and she give me four dokes.’
‘Four dokes,’ Kathleen repeated.
‘Aye. Two dokes on this hand, and then two dokes on this hand.’ He sounded so stolid about his dokes, as if it was all in a day’s work.
‘I was off for a week, Miss,’ he had told her. ’I never learnt it.’ But Mrs Doherty, as it seemed, had merely leaned further over the desk and breathed loudly at him, through her nostrils. ‘I don’t know how to do it, Miss, because I wasn’t here.’ She stared and breathed and suddenly she brought down the thin edge of the ruler keen onto his knuckles. It was after this that Peter went up to the school to find out what was going on.
Mrs Doherty, he was told, suffered with her nerves. ‘Oh, she does, does she?’ Kathleen said later.
‘That’s what he said anyway.’ They were having gin in the kitchen. Probably it should have been tea—it was a week night, after all—but the gin seemed to make more sense.
‘Well, but what does he mean by that?’
‘Turns out she’s had a time of it.’ Peter rubbed the gleaming crown of his head. ‘She married a farmer with a bit of land in County Down and it seems that a couple of years later he fell into a slurry pit and drowned.’
Kathleen blinked. Well, fair enough—the woman had indeed had a time of it.
‘What,’ she said after a moment, ‘and then she came to Derry and brought her nerves with her, is that it?’
Peter shrugged. ‘Seems to be the way it is,’ he said. ‘Never really got over it.’ He stirred his gin with a teaspoon. ‘Well, you wouldn’t, would you?’
No, you wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be nice to have your husband drown in a slurry pit. All the same though: what happened to Mrs Doherty’s husband was neither here nor there. Kathleen rallied her forces, fearful of losing whatever principle she was attempting to summon up; losing it to compassion, or cowardice, or whatever it might be.
Briskly, she said: ‘All the same, it doesn’t excuse taking a metre ruler to a child for no reason at all.’
‘Anyway,’ Peter said, ‘they said they’d keep an eye. That’s all we can do for now.’ He stretched across the shiny laminate-topped table and took her fingers in his own. ‘Drink your gin.’
All the Mammies are expected to help out with the Nativity play, with costumes and props and all the rest of it. And of course, they must come along and watch too. And each of the boys has his part to play. Some are shepherds, some angels, some are to be villagers from Bethlehem. Some are reindeer. And they all have a line. Mrs Doherty has at any rate seen to it that nobody is left out.
Kathleen had already wrapped a cardboard box in shiny silver paper, to play the part of Conor’s box of myrrh. She had washed his red dressing gown too; and she knew they had made the crowns in school. Cardboard, painted with gold paint.
So she is surprised when Conor comes back from school and announces that Mrs Doherty said he needed a blue curtain.
‘A blue curtain?’
‘Mrs Doherty says I have to be the Virgin Mary instead.’ ‘The Virgin Mary?’ She looks at him. He seems calm enough.
‘Derek was the Virgin Mary,’ he tells her, ‘but now he has to go to the dentist.’
She says: ‘Does he indeed.’
‘Aye. So Mrs Doherty said I have to be the Virgin Mary instead. And she says I need a blue curtain.’
She looks out of the kitchen window, thinks: forget the blue curtain for a second. ‘And—’ But she hardly knows what to say. And—nothing, because, really, anything she says will be bound to give him a complex. Better off just not referring to it at all. ‘Well,’ she says instead, ‘I’m sure I have some blue cloth; I’ll have a look in a minute.’
Her stomach is a tight knot of anger as she brings the scrap bag out and begins riffling through it.
Conor says: ‘I have a new line now. Yes, it will do. It’s not: And I have brought you myrrh any more; it’s: Yes, it will do.’
Kathleen opens her mouth but Conor goes on.
‘I asked her why did I have to play the Virgin Mary?’
‘And what did she say?’ Kathleen asks, carefully.
‘She shouted at me.’ He sounds so calm. ‘I got her spit all over my face, Mammy. She said: Because I’m the teacher and because I say so.’
Kathleen looks up at the silver-wrapped box of myrrh sitting on the high shelf and feels her face turn red. But then, Mrs Doherty is entitled to do all this if she wants. She turns back to the scrap bag and draws out a length of blue nylon that ought to have been flung out years before. It slithers unpleasantly in her hands and makes the hairs on her arms stand up and crackle.
‘I don’t like that, Mammy.’
‘I don’t like it much either, son, but I think it’s all we have.’
He touches it. ‘It’ll keep falling down, so it will.’
She looks at it. ‘I know, but what you’ll have to do is just give it a pull back up over your head, when you feel it falling down.’ She slides her hand across her forehead. ‘I’m sorry, son, but it’s all we can do for you.’
The next morning is the last day of term; and the blue curtain has been carefully wrapped in paper and slipped into the bottom of Conor’s schoolbag. Peter had dropped him to school as usual: only Conor to be dropped today, because the big school had broken up the day before. The other children are still in bed and Kathleen is washing the breakfast dishes when the phone rings.
There is a good deal of background noise. ‘Kathleen? It’s Berna Martin.’ An acquaintance rather than a friend.
‘Oh. Hello Berna.’
‘Can you hear me? I’m in a phone box. Only, I found your Conor walking along the side of the road and I stopped the car.’ She sounds apologetic. ‘I have him with me now—I mean, he’s grand, but I think maybe you should come down here.’
Kathleen is there in ten minutes, thumping along the white concrete road with a helicopter hovering overhead. She is in a flap, she definitely is—and there is Conor, sitting in the car alongside Berna Martin. Berna is chatting to him, but Conor doesn’t seem to be saying much in reply. He is looking at his knees instead. He looks—it is not so much that he is small or fragile or anything expected that makes the tears rise in Kathleen’s eyes; it is nothing like that. Instead, it is his very intactness that prompts her to cry, so unaccountably, right there by the side of the road, almost directly underneath the looming, deafening helicopter. That he is resilient at least, not shattered into pieces by the circumstances that have been flung, carelessly or carefully, in his direction.
‘And here’s your Mammy now!’ Berna carols as Kathleen steadies herself and opens the passenger door. ‘Hello Kathleen!’ She smiles a beaming, encouraging smile over Conor’s head.
Kathleen peers into the car at Conor, then she crouches down and rests the palm of her hand lightly on the boy’s head. ‘Why don’t you get into the car, love, and I’ll be there in a minute.’ Conor clambers out. ‘And say thank you to Mrs Martin.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Martin,’ Conor mumbles.
‘Not at all,’ Berna tells him ceremoniously. They watch him go over to Kathleen’s car, get in, close the door. ‘I thought there’d be a few tears a minute ago—but he seems to be fine now.’
‘Peter left him to school.’
‘He says he went into school, and then he went out again.’
Berna isn’t asking any questions, and this delicacy encourages Kathleen to go on ahead and explain about the Virgin Mary, raising her voice as the cars pass on the concrete road and the helicopter dips lower and deafens them even more. When she finishes, Berna frowns.
‘I heard that woman is odd too,’ she says at last, ‘but that’s no excuse, is it? I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.’ She shakes her head again, raises her voice to be heard over the din. ‘For God’s sake,’ she says. No more. There is nothing more to be said in any case and Kathleen gazes across the road at the Brits Out mural.
‘You’re right,’ she says. ‘It is no excuse.’
When she gets back into the car, Conor speaks quickly, to get his say in first.
‘I don’t want to go back to school. Mrs Doherty’ll be angry. Can I not go home with you?’
She shakes her head.
‘No, she won’t be angry. I’ll have a word with her and it’ll be fine.’
He sits back into the seat, despairingly. Of course Mrs Doherty will be angry. She’ll be livid. He wails: ‘She’ll slap me with the metre ruler, like she did before.’
But now, Kathleen once more rests the palm of her hand on top of his head.
‘I promise,’ she says, ‘that it’ll be fine.’
She turns the car, drives the short distance back to the school. They park, walk across the deserted playground to Mrs Doherty’s mobile classroom and she knocks on the door. When it opens and frames Mrs Doherty in the doorway, Kathleen says smoothly to her:
‘I’m sorry Conor is a wee bit late, Mrs Doherty. He was at the dentist.’ And before the teacher can say another word, she goes on: ‘And now that I’m here, I’d like a word, please.’
She sits in the assembly hall of the school later that afternoon, holding her black woollen gloves. The hall is filled to the brim with Mammies. The stage is all set up: a pile of straw right in the very centre and some animals—a plastic cow and donkey—to one side, a bright white lamp suspended above, a Christmas tree. Conor and his class are all lined up behind the heavy red curtains: she can see the tip of a shoe from time to time, a bump, a bulge in the fabric. Mrs Doherty sweeps up onto the stage and vanishes behind the curtains.
Kathleen folds her gloves. She will follow the example of the Viet Cong from now on. And those pieces of glass are going from the wall too, right after Christmas.
Mrs Doherty appears again from behind the curtains and slips into a seat. The lights dim and now, on the stage, appears the innkeeper standing and showing Joseph a pile of straw. And here is Mary standing beside him: a girl from the girls’ part of the school, a real live girl with fair ringletted hair, wearing a blue cloth on her head.
The innkeeper goes off the stage and Joseph and Mary sit down in the pile of straw.
‘Will it do, Mary?’ Joseph asks.
Mary surveys the scene very slowly, taking in Joseph, the straw and finally the audience. ‘Yes, it will do,’ she says, and her voice carries assertively across the hall.
Kathleen can still see the little row of shoes poking from underneath the curtain, as the shepherds and the Wise Men wait to go on stage. She glances over at Mrs Doherty and holds her glowering eyes until the other woman looks away. Then she sits back in her seat and waits for Conor to come on stage, bearing his silver-wrapped box of myrrh, and ready to say his line.
Now, today, and aged more seventy than sixty, Kathleen sits on the porch of the holiday cottage and looks out to sea. She is doing her best to ignore Conor, who is once more talking of laying a deck in front of the house. But he will not be ignored: the issue is too crucial.
‘No decking,’ she says at last, and firmly now. ‘It wouldn’t be appropriate.’ Conor is silent, though not because she has silenced him; it is more of a feint and sooner or later—most likely sooner—he will return to the attack. For a little while they sit in silence and in something that might appear like harmony, and watch the children play on the beach. She must look dutiful sitting there, like a professional grandmother, and for the most part she does in fact feel as professional and dutiful as they come.
Only sometimes—like today—does a certain martial spirit still possess her. She imagines it as a thrill of secret and rebellious thought raging against this dogma of property, new boilers and power showers, this orthodoxy that wants to wrap her up, mummy-like, and pin her down. The busy blue and red and white checks of Conor’s rugby shirt hum and irritate the corner of her eye.
Her own feelings, her own sense of herself—these have always been different. A different body of memory is to be retained, even if this memory seems no longer valued, even though her own children dismay her more and more. Even though the battle seems increasingly now to be lost.
After another moment, Kathleen gets up and moves away from Conor into the house, fills the kettle, sets out cups and saucers and plates for a sketchy lunch. Her bentwood chairs look fragile—they always look fragile, it is part of their design—but they remain in good nick, and as sturdy as they come. She pulls one out and runs her hand across its smoothly curving top. It is outside its time, or running on a different time, and the kettle begins to boil. Running on a different time, she thinks; and after all, there is nothing so very wrong with that.