‘Marie McKinley, ovarian cancer. Six weeks, that’s it,’ Mother says over dessert. ‘Silent killer they say. Same age as you, thirty-four, or are you thirty-five this year?’
‘That’s awful,’ I say.
‘Poor James, you’d be sorry for him.’
‘You know I don’t know them.’
‘Of course you do,’ she insists. ‘James McKinley. Jimmy. He went out with the Larkin girl for a while. Imagine, raising three little children on his own now.’
‘I didn’t know the Larkins. Weren’t they younger than me?’ I direct the question to my sister Laura. ‘Was one of them in your class?’
A pearl of stewed apple falls from her chin as she nods no. It lands on the brake of her wheelchair, balancing there for a moment before it slips to the floor. She snorts.
‘I see in the appointments section Robert Kelleher’s eldest got a big promotion,’ Dad says. ‘Aer Lingus. Deputy Finance Director.’
My parents like to follow the progress of my old contemporaries through college and jobs, marriages and break-ups. The minutiae of these lives accumulate, form layers over my own memories; children I barely knew growing up now seem familiar to me. I can predict how Jimmy will cope with his wife’s death, knowing the trouble he got himself into with his family’s dry-cleaning business just as I wasn’t surprised Tom Sweeney had to go away to dry out—‘It was a long time coming,’ I said.
As if I know what is coming for any of us.
‘Sounds like a big job alright,’ I say.
‘I was only talking to Robert the other day at the optician’s,’ Mother says. ‘Your prescription won’t be ready until next week.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Yes, they have to order the frames. Anyway, he tells me Margaret flew them out to Florida for their anniversary. She was only able to stay the one night herself. First class.’
‘They’d probably get priority treatment in the airport too,’ Dad says. ‘In Dublin anyway, they’d go straight through security.’
Just then, my concentration slips, snags on the omissions; the silences surrounding children whose weddings and promotions don’t appear in newspaper columns; whose parents aren’t members of the rugby club; children who slip away into worlds that are too distant or peculiar. Unless they transgress publicly or die tragically, those lives are suspended in that final summer, the defiant legion of youth. I wonder for the first time how my sister and I fit into the story of How Our Children Turned Out, as told by our parents to other parents; one, a dependent child-woman, the other divorced, no kids, no house.
‘I see that fella Hai Lon is coming back to give the Newton lecture in the college this year,’ Dad says.
He has got into the habit of reading the paper aloud every day to my mother and Laura, the parts he thinks will interest them.
‘Do you remember him, Helen? His father was a brilliant mind and he’s the same. In Harvard now, it says here. Doing research.’
‘Sure he won that competition that Helly was in,’ Mother says. ‘Remember the story you wrote? About the constitution. Or was it the environment? I think I kept a copy somewhere.’
‘You know I knew who the winner was?’ I say. ‘Before they announced it. That guy Maurice somebody, who was involved in judging it. He told me it was going to be Hai Lon.’
‘That’d be Maurice Gogarty. He’s a foolish man,’ Dad says. ‘They had to ask him to leave the Dramatic Society. He was making eyes at some young girl half his age and her father had words.’
‘I wondered did you know,’ Mother says. ‘It all got a bit lost in everything else.’
‘I think with most of those kinds of things they know,’ Dad says. ‘The competitions on the television, they all know beforehand, they have speeches prepared and all that, the Oscars and what have you, the whole lot.’
I found out I hadn’t won the essay competition exactly one week before the results were announced, on a sunny afternoon, Wednesday, in the town library, June 1984, my last summer at home.
‘Bad luck,’ was the very first thing he said to me.
I looked up from my book and recognised Maurice Gogarty. I knew who he was from the talk on Yeats he had given in the library that January; about eight of us had attended from the Convent. Some of the Christian Brothers’ boys had gone too and the boarding school outside town sent a full minibus.
I stared up at Maurice fiddling with his pipe, long brown sideburns bookending pocked cheeks. No one I knew smoked a pipe; nobody’s father or even grandfather.
‘Sorry?’ I said.
‘Bad luck,’ he repeated, ‘you know, with the essay competition.’
He was trying to be funny, ironic or something; he probably meant good luck, congratulations on making the shortlist from essays submitted by students across the county, hundreds of them. I shifted my elbow to cover the title of my book—Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence.
‘When was it announced?’ he asked, using a match to tamp tobacco down in the bowl of his pipe.
‘You can’t smoke in here,’ I said.
I wanted him to stop talking, to move away and I would return to my reading.
‘Chinese fella and all,’ he said.
‘I don‘t know.’
Right at that moment, I realised I did know what the man was saying and I couldn’t say ‘I don’t know’ again, not with the same conviction anyway.
‘Yeah. Chinese, Heelson or something. Brilliant performer too, heard him at the Feis. I read through the first batch of essays before it was narrowed down for the big man to deliver his verdict. When did you hear?’
‘We haven’t been told the result yet. Not until the middle of June.’
‘I thought it was to be after the Leaving Cert?’
‘It’s not over yet. Some people still have Italian. It’s going to be announced next Wednesday in the County Council offices. There’s going to be a reception.’
He had stopped looking at me; I kept talking to make him look at me.
‘I think there might be wine and cheese. They said finger food or something like that on the invitations.’
Maurice used his pipe to wave over to a young woman filing cards behind the desk. Neil O’Connor was standing in front of her, pushing a book across the counter. The librarian shook her head and pushed the book back. I didn’t really know Neil, although he had been in Oklahoma!, the musical our schools had put on that year. I knew he lived with his mother, just the two of them, and that his father wasn’t dead but had left to live by himself outside the town. Anita, my best friend, said Neil could get into college if he wanted, even into Medicine or Law, but he hadn’t done any study except for Art History.
‘I wonder where I heard it,’ Maurice said. ‘Probably one of the lads at cards. Everybody knows. Nothing sacred bar the heart of Jesus.’
‘He’s not Chinese.’
‘Hai Lon—who wrote the essay. He’s not actually Chinese, his parents are but he was born here. He’s a real strong accent. He’s on the debating team.’
‘Anyway, Heaney presenting the prize,’ he said, ‘at least you’ll get to hang out with the big man for what it’s worth.’
‘I don’t know. They said it’s not definite if he can come or not.’
‘Couldn’t be arsed probably. Anyway you’ll see enough of him in Dublin to last you a lifetime. I’ve a bellyful of the lot of them.’
That’s it so, I thought, and then I heard myself say it: ‘That’s it so.’
‘I suppose it is,’ he said and strolled off, over to the librarian, tapping his pipe along the shelves. I looked down at my book but I wasn’t reading. Did everybody know? My parents must have known. What about the photographer, did he know when he took my picture for the paper? My mother probably said ‘She didn’t win but it’d be nice to have a good picture anyway.’
But if they didn’t know and only I did? How could I watch my mother and Laura —and my father especially—getting dressed up for the reception when in fact I probably wouldn’t even go, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t bear the next week, living in the same house as my family with their false hopes. I saw myself coming down to the dinner table and dropping it into conversation, lightly.
‘What are you going to wear, Helly?’ my mother might ask.
I’d hardly look up when I answered, ‘Don’t know really. Doesn’t matter. I suppose Hai Lon will wear a suit or something. Because, you know, he won.’
Ignoring their confused expressions, I’d continue eating.
Or maybe I would say it just before I was going out some night so I wouldn’t have to listen to their questions: ‘How did you find out, Helen?’ ‘Why didn’t we know?’
I would be reckless about hurting them because they deserved it one way or the other. If they knew, how could they lie to me? And if everyone knew except them, why were they so stupid?
Somebody pulled out the chair opposite me, scraping it along the tiles.
‘Who was that, your Dad?’ Neil asked.
‘No. Just some old guy.’
‘Can you take a book out for me? I’m barred.’
‘How come, ‘cos of fines?’
Neil shrugged. If he had fines it was because he didn’t bring books back on time. Now this book would be on my ticket. I might even have to replace it.
‘You’ll leave it back, right?’
He was already heading out the door.
As the librarian date-stamped the insert and took the card, I looked at the front cover of Touched by Fire: A Photographic Portrait of the Civil War. I turned it over to see the price but it had been removed.
I gave Neil the book outside.
‘See ya,’ I turned to go but he stayed alongside talking.
‘I saw you in the paper,’ he said.
‘Who took your picture?’
We had been in the local newspaper—the finalists—with a paragraph on our lives so far: favourite books, best subject in school, hobbies and interests, our hopes for the future. I had two copies of the paper in my bedside locker and most evenings I tried to read between the lines, to pick out a winning tone or catch a knowing look on a face.
Neil asked again. ‘Who took your photo for the newspaper? Did they come out to your house?’
‘No,’ I answered. ‘You had to send in a picture. I didn’t have one so we went to Donal McArdle, to his studio.’
‘I could take photos like that any day, no problem. I was thinking of taking pictures at the grad and then selling them.’
‘But people have their own cameras. And you know they always have a professional in the foyer where you come in.’
‘Yeah but I could be in the foyer. Like who gets to decide that shit? Who elected McArdle king of photography for the whole town? You shouldn’t have to buy into that.’
‘His studio is way smaller than it looks in photos.’
‘Where are you going this summer? You going away?’ Neil said.
‘No. Just with my family. Deadly boring. You?’
‘Dunno. Like my Da was supposed to get transferred to Dublin and now he’s probably moving to Cork. For work. If I had known I would have applied to college there but he didn’t even tell me until my mother found out.’
There was no part of this I found simple so I said nothing.
‘I need to get a job,’ Neil said, ‘I did fruit picking last year so I can get that no problem but it’s too hot. I want to work on my portfolio.’
‘Journalism. If you look at the newspapers there’s a war on every single day. On a map you can see a lot of them are right beside each other. So you can go directly from one to another like in South America.’
‘What about here? The North?’
‘That’s not an actual war.’
‘Even with the bombs and all?’
As we walked away from the library, past the courthouse and towards Clonbore Road, Neil began to list the wars he was keeping tabs on. I was still thinking about the photographs in the newspaper. Mine was embarrassing; a smile on my face as if I was advertising a toothpaste or vitamins or happiness. As if I had won something. Hai Lon was photographed sitting at a large desk; he wasn’t facing the camera, just raising his head a little with a half-smile. A model of a molecule rose from a stand behind him. I couldn’t exactly remember James Kilcoyne’s picture, just a serious boy from Wexford town. Maureen Lawler’s was a holiday snapshot, lush foliage in the background; at the left border another shoulder was visible, two bare shoulders touching. The girl from King’s Court boarding school had her face cropped from a sports team photo. She was wearing a headband.
Neil had stopped talking.
‘You know that guy is really creepy,’ I said.
‘El Salvador,’ Neil said. ‘Like Reagan is totally involved.’
‘No, the guy in the library. Maurice Gogarty, he’s a poet or something.’
‘Does he smell creepy? I smell different today. You know when you smell like someone else’s smell?’
‘Girls hate talking about smells.’
I didn’t answer. Although Neil was good-looking no one had asked him to the grad as far as I knew. I’d asked Jerry Moynihan; we were going just as friends. Lots of girls fancied Neil but he was too weird. Anita heard that his brother was in a band in Dublin and sold drugs. Someone else said that Neil was stoned onstage during Oklahoma!. No one knew his real personality, Anita said.
‘You know the way you think your house smells okay,’ Neil continued, ‘and then you go to someone else’s house and theirs smells like wet dog or clay. Or real sweet like a bakery?’
‘Maybe. I don’t think so.’
‘Do you want to get an ice cream? Go across to the Centaur?’
Go with Neil O’Connor to the Centaur. I had never gone with a boy to the small park the other side of the river, where couples went.
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘I just have to keep an eye on the time. I’m supposed to meet Anita later to go swimming.’
Neil held the library book to his chest while walking; arms crossed over like a kite. I remembered his hands and I didn’t want to look at them. But then it was all I could think of and I could feel my face heating up anyway, thinking of the day at the tennis club.
Although Neil never played tennis, all the previous summer he had been coming down to the courts to hang out with our crowd. That day we were sitting around on the deckchairs past the second court, a shaded area away from the main pavilion. Some of the boys were talking about girls’ bodies, only girls who weren’t there.
‘I read somewhere nobody’s body is exactly two halves,’ Neil said. ‘Like each half is a different size, even shape.’
‘Not across, going down the middle,’ Neil said.
He used a tennis racket as a pointer, swivelling it around from girl to girl.
‘Hey, any volunteers, to find the magical middle line.’
Everyone was ignoring him.
‘Scientific experiment, one human female required.’
Anita pushed her chair forward slightly.
‘Anything for science,’ she said.
She got busy with her hair, twisting it tightly into a bun and pinning it high on her head with a diamante clip. Remaining seated, Neil pulled his chair forward until their knees were touching. He drew his finger from the middle of her forehead, down her face very slowly, along the bridge of her nose, over her lip, her mouth. I said ‘Anita’ once but Anita didn’t move. Everyone could see blotches of red rising from under her collar, travelling upwards. That was always happening to her. I was staring at the blossoming map pattern on Anita’s neck, ignoring the finger moving slowly, steadily. Neil continued down the throat, chest, catching his nail slightly when he reached the open neck of her tennis shirt, then moving from bare skin to the T-shirt material without losing contact. He didn’t look at what he was doing; he kept his eyes up and watched Anita’s face. His finger stopped at her navel.
‘Outie,’ he said.
Everyone laughed, thinking it was the end. Anita tried to laugh but her breath caught.
Then he continued on to the waistband of her tennis skirt. Even the boys were quiet now. He drew his finger down, pressing the cotton pleats in until the skirt was pinned, his knuckle pressed against her, the fingertip on the chair.
‘I think I found your middle line,’ he said.
He laughed. There was a minute, then Anita laughed, too, and as if we were waiting for a class to end, everyone got up quickly, permission to leave granted.
Walking home with her that evening, I said, ‘Neil is so off, he’s too much.’
She didn’t answer. She went on talking about a film we had seen the week before.
Afterwards no one ever said anything about what had happened and I wondered if it wasn’t such a big deal.
When I got back from the Centaur the house was empty. I had passed Laura playing out on the street and my parents were still at work. I watched Wimbledon on the television with the curtains drawn. The first thing my mother did when she got home was to walk across the room and open the curtains.
‘It’s so dark in here, Helly.’
‘That’s the point. The curtains are closed.’
‘How was your day?’
‘September, isn’t it?’
‘What?’ I kept my eyes on the television screen.
‘Your graduation ball.’
‘It seems months away and next thing it’ll be on top of us.’
‘Not really. Remember July. And August,’ I said. ‘We should be able to take our own pictures anyway.’
‘Would you like a camera for your birthday?’
‘Why would I want a camera? I never mentioned it. You always put words in my mouth.’
I gave up trying to watch the tennis and went up to my room. I heard my mother turn the television off and switch on the radio as she started the tea. The familiar smell of mince and onions filled the house, invisible as air, infusing the furniture and curtains. The drone of lawnmowers came through the open windows. Sitting on my bed I watched Laura below playing Kerbs with her friends, a game the kids on our street made up. You had to throw the ball across the road and get it to rebound off the kerb before the other team caught it. I had played it a thousand times, though not in the last few years. It seemed they had added some new rule about one team trying to catch the ball with their backs turned to the others.
Each throw of the ball was accompanied by a sharp yelp from Maxi, our terrier, bouncing up and down on his hind legs behind the front gate. From his vantage point he couldn’t see the kids, only the arc of their ball as it appeared for an instant and then disappeared from his sky.
Across the street, four doors up, Mrs Mulkearns was kneeling in her garden putting something around plants, straw maybe. She had a green mat under her knees and every few minutes she stood up and moved it on a little bit and knelt again. She couldn’t see over the high hedge to her left; the man who lived in that next house was standing at his front door smoking. We didn’t know him so well because he had no children and worked at a job outside town. Recently he had concreted over the grass at the front of his house but I could see the ground between him and Mrs Mulkearns was still patchy green. His pigeons were out of their loft, scrabbling around, all foraging close together, a jerky grey cloud with one or two pure white birds. The man flicked his hand out in front of him, the cigarette butt maybe, and went in slamming the door. The noise startled the birds and they lifted as one, abandoning a dark shape in the middle of the cluster, a rat. It scurried along the ground to the hedge. In that first instant I was repulsed by its movement before I wondered if it would pass Mrs Mulkearns on her mat or the kids on the road? Although Laura was twelve she was babyish about mice, even spiders; sometimes she still climbed into my bed during the night. So I was just sitting up there, watching and thinking, thinking about everything I could see at that very moment, the way I was seeing it unfold, the complete picture that none of them could ever know.
Then a notion took hold of me that all of it would happen just the same even if I wasn’t there to see it and I wasn’t sure what I felt about that. I stood up and quickly tied my hair in a high ponytail. I was so hungry I took the stairs down three at a time.
At the dinner table, I felt light-headed, giddy. My mother was guarded with me at first but she couldn’t resist. She did imitations of different customers and she told us that Lily’s diet had gone out the window again; my father always enjoyed the ‘travails of Lily’ as he called them. I wanted us all to have dessert together. I got wafers and a block of ice cream from the fridge to make up sandwiches but Laura skipped out to go back to her friends.
It would have been my second ice cream that day; earlier I had got a choc-ice and Neil had a cone. Once we crossed the bridge to the Centaur, we kept walking down the river track past three benches with couples until we came to the last bench. A heat haze rose from the tarmacadam path, a liquid screen that delayed transmission of life from across the river. I noticed a split at the corner of Neil’s lips, a little crack that would probably break open if he yawned. The couple nearest to us were holding onto each other and kissing; the girl put her head down on the boy’s neck while he took a drag off his cigarette.
I was still holding my ice cream as we sat down; Neil had finished his in a few mouthfuls outside the shop. I had to keep leaning my head over to catch the chocolate melting down the wooden stick onto my fingers. A swan began to rise from the reeds, stretching her neck long. With deep undulating wing beats she worked up the energy to take to the air. Two men in shorts and vests, a thin rowing boat on their heads, came out from the boathouse further up the other side. Their voices carried across the water, ‘Hold it, hold it for Jesus’ sake. Let it down now, easy. Nice and easy.’
Neil put the library book across his knee and I listened as he went through page after page, explaining technical features and set-ups. I couldn’t really make any sense of the photos or what he was saying. Still I sat there patiently, waiting.
All summer, the reminders kept arriving, the fines increasing. I wondered if Neil had known he wasn’t going to return the book to the library when he asked me to check it out. I hadn’t seen him since that day; Anita said his family moved to Cork but I wasn’t sure if that meant just his father or Neil and his mother too.
Then at the very end of August I saw him cycling back through the town with the fruit-picking crowd. He pulled over to the kerb.
‘I thought I’d see you at that reception thing,’ he said.
‘No. Anita said you took some photos.’
‘I’m going to Dublin tomorrow with Anita to get her shoes for the grad.’
What she actually said was he made a show of himself, setting up his camera in the car park of the County Council offices, telling everyone he was the official photographer. But he did get that shot of Heaney; it often gets reproduced, the one where the poet’s hands are held aloft like he is blessing the eyes behind the lens, a benediction for Neil.
‘Did you get a chance to drop that book into the library?’ I asked.
‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘There’s a couple of pages after falling out. I have to get them stuck back first. I’ll drop it in this week, no problem.’
‘Sorry,’ Neil said. ‘You know, not just about the book.’
‘Yeah. I know,’ I said. ‘It’s okay.’
The Monday after, I checked the shelves in the library and it was back with a number of pages missing from the middle, cut out with something sharp. I was nervous the librarian might notice but at the counter she rolled her date stamp back and forth, keeping it exactly parallel with the date above. Noticing that date, the previous date, I changed my mind about taking the book but I found I couldn’t get any words out.
That night in bed, the big book propped up on my stomach, slowly turning a page was enough to make my throat tighten. Between my eyes and the page was Neil’s finger tracing the outline of corpses stretched across a battlefield, an image that dissolved into jellyfish stranded on a beach; a soldier, bandaged hands raised, his face shrouded in a woollen scarf, became a walrus, eyes heavy, benign; bloodstained sheets in a first aid tent held the shadow of eels.
Early the next morning I put the book in the bag I used for my swimming gear and walked to the Centaur. Crossing the bridge I looked ahead down the river track and could see the last bench was unoccupied. The water in the river was low and objects poked up, rusted metal frames and pipes draped with slimy weeds. The park was deserted except for one man with a can of cider on the bench beside him. He was wearing women’s pop socks and no shoes. When I sat down and took the book from my bag he had his opportunity.
‘Doing a bit of extra study, Miss?’
I smiled at him as I shook my head no, the smile a reflex not yet under my control. The day had not warmed up and the book cover was cold against my bare legs. A line of trucks drove up and down the other side of the river to the granary and further on to the slaughterhouse. The book smelt fresh but I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t a stench from the warehouses wafting over, attaching to the pages. A lump of something was stuck to the seat right beside me, maybe gum; I moved closer to the armrest to avoid it and ended up in a small space on an empty bench.
Before turning the first page, I set the book aside to take a jacket from my bag and put it on.
‘Cool enough now,’ the man called up. ‘Tell ya one thing, hang on to yer winter vests.’
As small children we had different vests for summer and winter; Laura and I used to get so excited when our mother opened a new packet of winter vests.
I put the book back in the bag, walked quickly over the bridge and home.
The day my father sees Hai Lon in the newspaper is the first time the essay competition has ever come up for discussion in our home. And just as soon as the topic arises we drop it because we can’t talk about that summer.
I still have no idea how exactly it all unfolded, whether my parents knew who won before the results were announced or not. The events of those months ended up like a broken necklace, restrung in the wrong sequence.
We missed the prize-giving because Laura was in hospital and we had to stay in Dublin for weeks, in my aunt’s house, to be close.
It was Anita who told me about the reception in the County Council offices and how Neil tried something similar at the grad, setting a camera up beside Donal McArdle in the hotel lobby, how he had to be removed by the bouncers. I could have gone to that, the grad—Laura was home—but I hadn’t got shoes to go with my dress and anyway I had lost touch with all of what was going on.
All the small details you notice and remember. The rust on the pipes in the river, the unknown shoulder in Maureen Lawler’s photo, the smell of my mother’s cooking, that crack at the corner of Neil O’Connor’s lips. And all that you’re never sure you knew and can’t exactly remember or forget. I never noticed that day when the kids were playing Kerbs how close they were to the corner, how you really wouldn’t see what might come around, especially if you were on the footpath on the other side of the street with the high hedge and if there were lawnmowers you would only hear that sound, and if it was your turn to catch the ball with your back to the road you wouldn’t know, you just wouldn’t know.
‘I’ll take the bottom half,’ some boy said.