In place of my right shoulder blade, I was born with a white wing, like a chicken’s. Not too many in Ireland in 1969 born that way, not the world over either, I don’t believe. The first person outside my family and the doctors to see my wing was my best friend, Betty. Betty would’ve given her crossed eyes, double vision, and a whole lot more for my chicken wing, said if we weren’t blood sisters, she’d have cut off my wing in my sleep.
Grown-ups now, I was tall, like a man, and Betty was still short, like a child. We’d travelled across towns and men and still ended up living close together again, in the same housing estate, almost right next to each other, raising our families. This particular evening, I found Betty in her back yard, sanding down panels of wood. She was building a dollhouse for her youngest, Melba. Best I could remember Melba was coming up on twelve.
‘Melba not too old for a dollhouse?’ I asked.
‘Gives me something to do,’ Betty said.
We both coughed on the sawdust she was sending up—her face, hair and shoulders covered in a fine, biscuit-coloured layer.
‘That’s some dust,’ I said.
‘No end to dust,’ Betty said.
The dollhouse was going to be something, Georgian with arched doors and windows, a chimney, and painted bright colours. Already, that house looked nicer than mine, than Betty’s, than most everyone’s we knew.
Finally, Betty led me into her kitchen. ‘Make us tea.’
I made tea.
Betty wasn’t in much humour of talking.
‘Fucking dollhouse,’ I said, shaking my head.
We laughed like we were letting everything out through our mouths. We’d stop for a second, two, and go off again. In seconds, that’s where all trouble lies.
When next I saw Betty she was still going at the dollhouse, this time with a paintbrush and white primer. A longing came over me and I reached for the brush in her hand, wanting to stroke up and down too and make the wood shiny. Betty refused to share the paintbrush or allow me to do anything to the dollhouse. I’d heard people talk to dogs better than the way Betty spoke to me then.
‘It’s getting dark,’ I said, glad the night, if not me, would end her work.
She looked up at the dim sky. ‘It is, isn’t it.’
‘I’ll make tea,’ I said.
‘No,’ she said, in a way people say no to the dying.
Betty and I met in the supermarket, next to the tins of soup, vegetables and fruit. Despite an Irish summer’s day that was actually acting like summer, Betty wore a hairy grey coat buttoned up to her tonsils and all the way down to her pale, skinny calves. Made her look like a donkey.
‘You’ll suffocate,’ I said.
‘Well, I won’t drown,’ she said.
I pictured all the sweat that had to be collecting on her. ‘You might.’
At the end of the aisle, next to the fridges, we watched a man with a dyed brown comb-over stomp on a carton of milk and proceed to pretend to fall. Didn’t stir a strand of his plastered-down hair. He roared, and men, women and children came running.
The supermarket manager insisted Betty and I go to his office and make witness statements. Five of us just about fit inside that hot, cramped space: me, Betty, the manager, security guard, and the comb-over man with milk on his shoes and trousers.
The manager punched buttons on his black desk phone and glowered at the milk- stained chancer. ‘I’m sick of you bastards.’
‘We didn’t see anything,’ I said, wanting to get out of that small space.
Betty tittered and pointed at her eyeballs rubbing up against the bridge of her nose. ‘And I saw double of nothing.’
The police officer squeezed into the manager’s tiny office, his big frame sandwiched between Betty and me, and attempted to arrest the Polish security guard.
As soon as that confusion was settled, Betty stood up and held out her arms. ‘I’m ready, Officer.’
The men exchanged more confused glances.
I took Betty by the elbow. ‘You’re not going anywhere in that coat.’
Betty removed her coat and dropped it to the floor. I don’t know why I didn’t have enough imagination to even consider she’d be naked.
In the hospital waiting room, Betty said she wished the police officer had taken her anywhere but here. Around us, people hurt and bled and paced and hunched and dozed. Betty was back in that pelt coat. She looked better naked.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said. ‘Nothing wrong with you besides that coat.’
We ran out of the hospital arm in arm, almost tripping over our own shrieks.
On the bus ride home, we wondered about Mister Milk Mischief. If he did that spill-and-slip thing often or if that was his first time.
‘First times are sacred,’ Betty said.
‘Now him,’ I said. ‘There’s something wrong with him all right.’
Betty pointed outside to the ice cream shop and pulled on the stop chord.
Betty and I sat opposite the ice cream shop on a wooden bench, licking the taste of the past.
Betty let the trickles of vanilla slip down the cone and travel her wrist. ‘It tastes better the more it gets the sun.’
‘Here,’ I said and took her ice cream before she wasted it all, and ate that too.
We sat and sat. I imagined Betty melting inside that big coat, getting smaller and smaller until she was a puddle, a drop, and then nothing.
Just as I thought we might never move from that spot, Betty turned her head slow and asked, ‘You still got that wing?’
I shrugged. ‘Last time I looked.’
‘I wanted that ice cream,’ she said.
‘Didn’t look like it.’
‘Well, I did.’
‘You want another?’ I asked.
‘Wouldn’t be the same,’ she said.
‘Suppose,’ I said.
‘Is the wing still white?’ Betty asked.
‘I’d know,’ she said.
Our husbands said maybe Betty and I needed to get away together. A change would do her good, they said. We told everyone we were going on a shopping weekend to Belfast, Betty needed a decent coat, but really we escaped to an IRA training camp Betty knew about in the Donegal hills, amidst trees that made me think of asparagus.
Inside the forest, we shouted and searched, and asked campers and hunters for directions, but we didn’t see as much as a single Provo in camouflage or hear guns or bombs or drills.
‘They’re hiding from us,’ Betty said. ‘I should have knowed we’d be no good to them.’
I thought we’d make great guerillas but I could tell Betty wasn’t in the mood to be contradicted.
Betty dropped to the ground, plucked the grass and pushed handfuls into her mouth.
‘Jesus now, Betty, don’t be at that.’
‘Grass is alive,’ she said. ‘Get it into you.’
I sat down opposite her and munched on the grass too.
‘Roots and all,’ Betty said. ‘That’s important.’
Done, we stretched out on our backs. A sword of sunlight cut the space between us. God, those crows shrieked. The squirrels manic too in the trees, up and down and over and back.
‘Let me see,’ Betty said, her voice thick, like she was asking me to make love.
I pulled up my shirt and she saw.
‘Okay,’ she said, breathless.
I tucked my shirt back into my trousers.
We resettled on the ground and Betty stretched out as long as she could. The afternoon passed. Looked like we were going to bring in the dark together right there. I started in on my flask and offered some to Betty. Betty held the Zinfandel in her mouth, took her time to swallow.
‘Blood,’ she declared.
‘Of grapes,’ I said.
‘Not everything acts like itself,’ she said.
‘You ever finish Melba’s dollhouse?’ I asked.
Even her skin smiled. ‘Best thing I ever did.’
‘What I saw, I’d move in,’ I said.
We followed firelight to a campground full of schoolchildren. Betty and I stacked one tall story on top of the other and told those parents and teachers that three women had ambushed us, then robbed, kidnapped and released us here in the bowels of the forest. Those good Catholics fed and watered us and made arrangements for a tent for us for the night. The children clapped and sang and Betty and I felt like the prodigal come home.
During a pause, Betty surprised the night and the rest of us with the stab in her voice. ‘She’s one of God’s chosen.’
‘Show them,’ she told me. ‘Show them.’
The wide-eyed group stared at her the way most everyone looked at her now.
The next morning, inside our tent, Betty wore a glisten on her face that looked like dew. I never saw her more beautiful. She talked nonstop about her garden and in particular her Sweet Pea plants. Said how the Sweet Pea grows straight and strong and pink and beautiful until it comes into contact with something, anything, and then it twists itself around that something like a boa constrictor, fierce and frightening.
Betty dived at the tent opening. ‘Let’s do handstands, walk on the sky.’
We stretched and readied outside, our grins almost too big for our faces.
Except we couldn’t do handstands anymore. Our very first attempt, I sprained my wrist and Betty back-flopped onto the ground, knocked out all her air.
We sat on the ground like two dazed and injured animals, both hit hard by how much we’d lost down through the years. Or maybe that was just me.
The next time Betty and I went to the supermarket, the Polish security guard acted like he didn’t know us, just stared dead straight ahead with his shoulders and legs wide. Betty wanted to hear him speak again, said he sounded like that actor they’d made a bigwig out of over there in California. I ushered her past.
The supermarket manager found us next to the toiletries. He ignored me and spoke to Betty. ‘There’s to be no more of your carry on, Missus.’
‘That reminds me,’ Betty said. ‘I need milk.’ She pushed her trolley past the manager with force, looked like she was going to ram things.
I met the manager dead in the meat of his eyes and took off my cardigan.
‘Oh no you don’t,’ he said.
My hands moved to the buttons on my blouse.
‘Security!’ he shouted.
I strode off, smirking, and followed Betty to the fridges, got there in time to stop her emptying orange juice all over the shiny shop floor.
Betty wanted me to take Melba to be fitted for her first bra, something special the child and I could do together. I thought she and Melba should share the occasion. Betty was adamant.
‘Child hasn’t much grá for me anymore,’ Betty said.
I insisted we three would go.
Later, inside Betty’s living room, I told Melba, ‘You’re fast on your way.’
She looked at me like I was something she wanted to stub out. Betty appeared at last and we moved to the front door, ready to leave. She lifted the pink, purple, and yellow painted dollhouse, the full circle of her arms just about fit to contain it. Seemed she’d started to bring the dollhouse with her from room to room and place to place.
‘We’re not bringing that,’ Melba said.
Melba looked at me, beseeching.
I helped Betty load the dollhouse into the back seat of my car, strapped it in tight, right next to Melba.
Melba didn’t want me or her mother to go into the fitting room. The sales assistant squeezed Betty’s hand, said that was pretty typical. She looked from Betty to me to the dollhouse on the floor between us and back up to Betty again, her smile gone and a look of uncertainty setting in.
Once Melba and the sales assistant disappeared behind the orange curtain at the end of the corridor, Betty pulled me and the dollhouse into another of the fitting rooms. She ordered me to show her my wing again. I lifted my T-shirt, but Betty wanted my top removed, my bra too.
She petted my wing, stroke after stroke. I didn’t think she’d ever stop.
When she spoke, I heard the hate coming at me like a bird of prey. ‘You didn’t ever do anything with this, not once.’
Melba and the sales assistant moved up the corridor, calling.
‘Mammy?’ Melba said, her voice rising.
‘Wherever did she go?’ the sales assistant said.
Betty wrapped her arms around my waist and rested the side of her head on my back, right over my wing. In the mirror, the dollhouse stood behind our legs, just its sides peeking out, but still you could tell it was something bright and special, a home. Betty’s crossed eyes brought to mind shattered glass and seemed about to fall right out of her, chip by chip. We looked like a statue, like something a great sculptor would give her whole life to make.