Alice sits back and checks the clock. Half past five. She has been sewing all afternoon and she gets up now, goes to the kitchen and makes a pot of tea. She does not eat as there will be a meal later. In her mind she goes over the things she has made ready for the night—dress pressed, shoes polished, handbag and gloves resting on the dressing table. A slight worry persists that the gloves will seem a touch contrived. There will be a parish function later to mark her retirement as a primary schoolteacher. There has never been an occasion in her life in which she has been the centre of attention.
She finishes her tea and returns to the sewing room. Her dress hangs by the window and she stands to admire it. She is a small neat woman and dresses become her. It is straight and collarless, with three-quarter length tapered sleeves, in a light navy brocade and it has taken three weeks to complete. It is her own design, simple and understated, and she is grateful for the kindness of navy.
In the seven years since her brother Manus’s death she has taken to planning, sketching and sometimes creating her own designs. She buys her sketchbooks—with Japanese girls in silk kimonos on the covers—and HB pencils and black ink pens at the stationer’s in Derry that she has frequented for thirty-five years, taking the Lough Swilly bus to the city one Saturday in every month. With her purchases wrapped and a mildly glowing heart she walks down the street and sits in an alcove of a hotel where she orders lunch. She eats slowly, pencil in hand, and dreams up her designs, and can scarcely contain herself until she is back in her sewing room again.
The room runs the width of the house. She sits at the back window to draw, and sews at the front where the sewing machine is set on a wooden table perpendicular to the window and the inward flow of light. A dark mahogany wardrobe with a long mirror set into the door stands against the wall, bearing down on the room. She gives her designs names; ‘Clara’ is a straight, tailored suit with a short jacket and skirt which she imagines made up in black bouclé wool and jade buttons; ‘New Moon’ is a classic evening gown in midnight blue satin, overlaid with chiffon to create a hint of a shimmer. She imagines them on smart women on New York streets, or on ladies stepping out to the opera on a summer’s evening in Boston.
She moves into the sewing room late in the evenings in a slightly charged state of mind. She lays tracing paper on the fabric and marks the measurements. She carefully cuts around it, then takes the fabric onto her lap and tacks the pieces together with large white stitching. She crosses the room to the Singer sewing machine and sews in silence, with lamps on, eschewing the radio programmes of concerts and operas and music hall melodies that Manus had loved. In this room, the silence has its own notes, plucked from the twilight outside and the stone walls and the murmurs of the sea. In the half light of evening she slips into reverie. Hours pass and she cannot account for them. She works into the night, feeling nothing of her body—not even her tired eyes, or the hands that cut and fold and sew. Then she looks up and out of the window at the moon and remembers herself, and the prospect of stepping out of this room or out of this house, ever, is almost too much to imagine. She thinks that it is only her memory and these nightly recalls that have any substance, and that everything else she has ever done—teaching the school children, caring for her mother, tending to this place or sewing these dresses—counts for almost nothing at all.
The school’s board of management will send a car to collect her just before eight o’clock. She stands at the front window and surveys the area below. Every night a fishing boat or two traverses the bay and their lights bob and dip on the water, winking up at her on the hill.
She opens the door and stands in the garden. The smell of July is everywhere— heather, honeysuckle, the scent of yellow furze and the faint promise of night-scented stock. There is a spot down the lane where, year after year, she awaits the appearance of primroses, their pale yellow a salve to the eyes after the bleak winter—always the bleakest of winters here. They spring out of this unlovely ditch and though she knows it is absurd to imagine that a small wild flower might yield up some message, their appearance after such a long time bestows certainty and confirms the existence of real and material things, their constancy, their permanence.
Her eye is caught by something bright on the grass. It is a child’s pink hairband, made of elasticated cotton, with a sequined butterfly at the centre. Its presence here is a mystery and she is suddenly thrown by it. She glances around. We are always being watched, the nuns said, by God or the angels or the dead. She raises her head. The small uninhabited island far out in the bay reclines like a giant on his back. Down below on the main road the school is part hidden by the hedgerow. Her eyes glide to a snug two-storey house a little further on. Once it was the first place her eyes sought when she opened the front door each morning. The first chimney she fixed upon as she walked down the hill to the school, waiting for the trail of grey smoke to rise into the sky, and know he was up. They were up. I would have knocked down that outhouse at the back, she thinks, if I’d been him, I’d have knocked it down and got a clear view out to sea.
She switches on the immersion water heater and rearranges the box of face powder, lipstick and perfume bottle on the dressing table. She removes her glasses and her shoes and eases herself down onto the pink eiderdown. Thoughts of the evening ahead unsettle her. pupils, past and present, the local curate, the principal Con Gallagher, half the parish will be there. There will be a meal—a cold meat salad and desserts—prepared by the ladies of the parish, and then speeches and toasts and finally the presentation. She cannot stand to be looked at. She opens her eyes. This is my place, she thinks—this house, these rooms, contain me. She switches on the lamp by her side. It casts an orange glow on the walls. This had been her parents’ room. She remembers evenings here, looking out the front window. She dates the start of her own conscious life to the moment when she was two, and, bathed in light, she saw for the first time the top of her head in the mirror of the wardrobe door. She tries to reimagine herself at two. She brings her hand to her face and presses on her eyelids, to stem the flow of tears.
There had been a child. His hair had grown from fair to dark in one year. His ears were small and, she thought then, a little too close to his head. He had learnt to walk at ten months. She’d come home from school through the city streets on winter evenings and the upstairs flat would be warm, with condensation running down the window panes, and Kathleen would hand him to her and his weight would sate the ache in her arms and there was nothing sweeter, ever, in her life after that. When he was born she thought of him as having come out of another realm, uncontaminated, pristine, whole. His eyes turned to the window, like a plant straining for light, and she wanted to say no, no, stay pure. She whispered—she dared not say it aloud—my son. She whispered his own name and his father’s name into his ear. She almost forgot to eat. At night he slept beside her in the narrow bed set against the wall. She wanted nothing to divide them. At times she wanted to put him back inside her.
On Saturdays she walked around the city, pushing him in his pram, fearful of being sighted by the nuns from her school. She went out early to the library and to bookshops and to the Botanic Gardens, and one Saturday morning in spring, she took a bus out of Belfast to Strangford Lough. The bus driver helped her with the pram and she held him on her lap for the journey, like any other mother. They passed a fishing tackle shop on Lower Donegall Street, a strange shop with a dark interior that she walked past every day on her way to school. The surname was written in sturdy red lettering above the door. Sweeney. The sight of this name, with the child sitting there on her lap, gave her a bearing. She bent her head close to the child’s and whispered the two syllables in his ear.
She was eighteen that summer and home from St Mary’s Training College in Belfast. Neighbours worked together saving hay and turf, bending and sweating and toiling from dawn to dusk, the women returning to the houses at noon to bring out sandwiches and bottles of sweet tea. She worked side by side with Manus. With Hughie Sweeney and his younger brothers, too. Years later she came upon a print in a bookshop— it was a photograph of a young man and woman on a paris street. The young man looked just like Hughie, shy and clumsy and lost. His tall, thin rangy body in baggy trousers and a pullover, his head lowered a little, and hands like Hughie’s—big rural hands that he never knew what to do with. Hughie’s voice was thick with the local accent and he had a habit of nodding a little too fervently as if he was still greeting the person long after meeting them. When she was alone with him the nod got worse. They started to fall in together at the work and in the comings and goings to the fields. He had a black and white sheepdog, percy, who followed him everywhere and he told her of a neighbour who had never named his dog but whistled and called out Dog and the dog came, and they both laughed at his story.
That day in late August when the work was all done, they had gone up the mountain so that Hughie could fish from a small lake high up. He carried a homemade fishing rod and a jar of bait, and she, in her sleeveless dress, tucked a book from her college course under her arm. They walked along a stony lane that wound its way around the back of the mountain. Halfway up percy stopped and looked back, uncertain, and Hughie told him to go on home. Wild goats perched high up on tiny rocky outcrops and she, afraid of heights, had to look away, for fear she might cause them to topple off. The path narrowed and the overgrown briars caught on her dress and he had to disentangle her. She felt her face flare red when he leaned behind her. At the top the mountain opened out to surprise them—a secret plateau of luxurious grass and heather and bog cotton, high and concealed and embedded into the summit. He told her the name of the place, Áit na hAltaire, the altar place, named after the secret Masses celebrated there in penal times.
She would have preferred not to read, to talk instead. She grew hot and tense and could not follow her novel. She brushed off a fly and she saw he was looking at her and her heart rose. She turned back to her book, to its story set in nineteenth-century London society, and on this mountain on this bright day the characters and their lives felt dull and stifling and irritating. She left the book aside and got up and walked off to find a view of the sea, but there was none. The collar of her dress was stiff and hot against her neck. She lifted her hair to cool off. She listened out for birdsong. It is too far up, she thought, birds don’t fly this high. She would have liked to open her arms out wide and run in circles under the sun and call out the name that was coursing through her head all summer. Instead she pulled wisps of bog cotton and rolled them between her fingers and thought of slaves labouring in American cotton fields in the searing sun all day long.
She knelt down and touched small purple flowers that she had never seen before, and it seemed a shame to pull even one. When she looked up, Hughie’s eyes were on her again and he smiled and something stirred and swelled and dropped inside her. She smiled back and felt suddenly drenched in his smile and in the light and the blueness of sky. She sat back and placed her palms firmly on the heather, to steady herself. He left down his fishing rod and turned to get bait from the jar. She kept her eyes on him, her chest rising and falling, her heart egging her on. She crept over the heather and leaned in and pounced on the rod and made off with it. He jumped up and ran after her, round and round. She moved fast, the rod high over her head, laughing. She ran through the heather and the long grass and around the lake’s edge and then he caught her by the hem of her dress and brought her down. He was lying on top of her, breathless. The heather scratched her upper arms. The laughing stopped. His eyes were hazel, dappled with green. Speckled eyes, you have, like a speckled thrush, she thought. He searched her face, then stroked it with his index finger. He lifted her hair and touched her neck and shoulders and she felt every part of her gather and rise to meet his touch. They pressed hard against each other, and his body frightened and delighted her. Her own wanton body ached and opened and every cell in her being, in her belly, in her womb, cried out for him and she could not have stopped it, she could not have stopped it.
Then it was over and he was lying in his white vest and open trousers on top of her. He pulled away but his face had darkened. After he had put on his shirt he looked down and saw that he had buttoned it wrong and a look of unbearable sadness came on him. They did not say anything and he went back to his fishing and she to her book, and she was filled with terror and shame at what had just happened. But then later, as they were leaving, he said, ‘I’m going to get you a pup, for next summer,’ and he took away some of her shame. She would have liked him to hold her hand or kiss her hair, or something, before they went back down the mountain.
She wrote to him in the fifth month—a letter full of apology and dread and small proffered hopes—and again in the seventh. She thought he would come. In the ninth month she sat her final exams and imagined that he had never got the letters. Her mother came to the city to talk to her. Her friend Kathleen Doran from Monaghan got her through it, and afterwards when she got a teaching job, Kathleen and Kathleen’s younger sister took turns minding the child.
It could have gone on like this. She could have lived in the city and raised him, and it would all have come right in the end. But her father fell ill and a job in the local school had her name on it and someone, somewhere—her mother maybe, or an aunt in America—thought that it all fitted, that it all made sense. And she was young and torn with doubt and guilt and duty. And on a wet Belfast evening in November, when he was eighteen months old, she handed the child into the arms of her mother’s cousin, a childless woman in her forties, visiting from Boston. The husband, a tall handsome American, stood guiltily in the background. Legal papers followed a few weeks later. She went back to the flat that evening and cut off her long hair and walked the city streets that December under bright brutal skies, past gardens with bare trees whose beauty almost broke her, past people who gazed at her and could not have known what she knew, or felt what she felt. Her father died two months later and Hughie Sweeney began to walk out with Marie Gallagher and within three months she was back in the stone house set into the hill, the daughter, the teacher, the breadwinner. And that was that.
Her mother never spoke of it and Manus never knew. She saw the child everywhere—in the small boys who walked through the school door every September; in Manus’s long straight back and serious face, in the elaborate wallpaper with the peacock which she and her mother hung in the sitting room and which would hang there for decades, a constant reminder of the visit to Belfast Zoo one Saturday and the peacock who had duly obliged and unfurled its feathers for the mother and child.
Once, ten years or so later, she confronted her mother. She remembers the moment, a winter’s evening, Manus sitting at the table reading his library book, her mother sewing a button on a coat, the television on. Manus got up and went outside, the way he did some nights after reading, as if to recover from the contents of his book. Alice had been watching Hawaii Five-O. And Steve McGarrett, as he did every week close to the end, turned to his partner and with a wry contented smile, delivered his catchphrase, ‘Book ‘em, Danno,’ and then turned and skipped down a flight of steps and disappeared off camera. And she saw the child in that instant, as she did every week, after every episode, saw him sitting with a father in a front room with a picture window bearing onto a lawn with sprinklers, and a mother making popcorn in a kitchen with wooden cabinets and a big fridge, and then the child getting up and turning to that father with a broad happy grin, and pointing a finger and calling out ‘Book em, Danno,’ and the two of them tipping and gripping and thumping each other as the credits rolled, all high fives and low slaps, all confidence, all American, and all she ever had to reimagine him, to re-envisage him, to cling to, every single day and night and week of this miserable life.
‘Did she ever write?’ she asked her mother that evening.
‘Who? Did who ever write?’
‘You know well who,’ she said coldly.
‘Was there ever a letter or a card or a photograph?’
And then out of the blue, years later, a month before her mother died, a visiting American relative sitting in the kitchen one day said ‘Ellen’s son trained as a lawyer, you know. He qualified last year. He’s with a big firm in Boston, I believe.’
She had been turning towards the sink to fill the kettle and all sounds dissolved behind her and then, to steady herself, she looked up and out and a long slender bird, like a heron, was flying past the window.
She had packed his things that morning and handed them over as if they had never been hers. She had written a long list of things that he liked and needed—how buttons, tags and cuffs made him itch, how he liked to touch the edge of his serge cotton blanket every day, every night, every moment, and look out the window first thing in the morning to check that the earth was still there—a list written and discarded and rewritten many times because it made her frantic and insane.
The couple had hired a car and were touring around Ireland. They did not want the pram. They sailed on a liner from Cobh. She thought there might be dolphins for him to watch. She thought of him on the deck of the ship scanning their faces for some trace of her, fingering the wool of his Fair Isle jumper, making concentric circles on his tummy with his index finger, as he looked out from a small, grave face. At the last minute before they left the flat he had pointed to a shiny green apple sitting on the dresser, and later she thought of this and saw significance in it, saw significance in everything. She had taken the apple and placed it in his hand and as they rode in the taxi he bit into it with his small new teeth and left little nibbled marks on the tough skin. Then, as they pulled up at their destination, he looked into her eyes for several seconds and silently, meekly, handed back the apple. This act remained with her forever. At the front door of the flat two nights later, feeling around inside her handbag for her keys, she touched the apple’s cold skin. She unlocked the door and stood under the bare bulb in the kitchen and stared at the apple, at the little bites and teeth marks, and the current ran out of her, and she thought then she would rather have had her head cut off.
From the window she can see the car snaking uphill and she breathes deeply and stands ready. The sea is shining in the evening light. She has a clear view of the parish hall and the church and, a little further on, closer to the water, the cemetery. Cars are parked along the road and people in bright summer clothes are moving towards the hall.
When his children, first one, then two, then four daughters, were born she had thought that when the time came she would not be able to teach them. She remembers a June day, years before, when she brought flowers to her father’s grave and stood there trying to call up some memory of him, distracted by the sun gleaming on stone and sand and by the birds singing—one bird praising the day with the same two notes ch-wut, ch-wut, ch-wut over and over—and then others with their own chorus, chwee, chwee, chwee, and she trying to recall her father but nothing coming except the child, and the birdsong gradually growing louder and shriller as if all the notes were tumbling into disharmony and all the birds into disagreement until she could bear it no longer and ran from the grave.
But she had scarcely reached the path when there they were—a vision before her, like the holy family—coming over the stile. Hughie, lifting the smaller girl, then the bigger one, and finally, reaching out a hand to Marie, as she twisted her body, swollen with child, through the stile. She was wearing a green summer dress and flat white canvas shoes. Her arms were bare and freckled. The small children and small platitudes saved Alice. And Marie, open and friendly and oblivious, so familiar, so at one with him by her side, that she had an image of their married life—of Marie washing and folding his shirts, his socks, his underthings, of nighttime and warm sheets and the smell of their bodies, of whispers, and shared physical things. And then Marie telling her that Imelda would be starting school in September, and then Imelda, with something wriggling in her arms, leaning forward and dropping it. A small black pup came tumbling towards Alice and sniffed her shoes and wagged its tail joyously. Marie smiled and Alice smiled too and looked down, and then he bent down suddenly, fiercely, and scooped up the pup, chastising it, and he cast his eyes briefly, shamefully, on hers. As he withdrew, his arm brushed against the swollen belly, and Marie placed a hand lightly on her stomach and looked up at him, a knowing look, and Alice saw it for what it was, saw what Marie was showing her, what all women in this state proudly, shamelessly, declare to the world: the potency of their men, their private married acts, their fecundity, their triumph. This is what he has done to me, this big belly. This is his seed he has planted in me. This is his child I am bearing.
She sits next to the driver as they bump down the lane and onto the main road. As they approach the hall she becomes agitated and asks him to drive on a little. They pass the hall and he turns off left towards the cemetery and the shore. He pulls over at the bridge, and says in a gentle voice that it can be hard, sometimes, to face people. She looks at him for a second, this local man with soft blue eyes, and she is moved with gratitude to him.
The priest and the principal receive her at the door and she is ushered into the hall where everyone is waiting. They stand and clap and she follows the two men to the top table. The microphone is switched on and the evening is announced. During the meal she nods and smiles and talks to those next to her. She knows all the words and all the answers that are required. She picks up her fork and brings food to her mouth. She feels the blood pulse through her temple. She closes her eyes for a second. Oh, to be far from here.
The parish committee presents her with a suite of crystal goblets and a wallet of notes and she is lauded for her work and dedication. She is handed the microphone and tremulous words issue from her mouth about the fine people and the beautiful children of the parish. The tables are tidied away and everyone wants to talk to her. She will miss the job, she tells them. It is the truth. She will miss seeing the new batch of infants every September, eager and expectant and glowing. She will miss listening to their first faltering attempts at reading, and watching their tense bunched-up fingers grip a pencil and start to write.
Grown men and women, whom she cannot place, take her hand and hold it and recount classroom tales that she cannot recall. She is sitting at the top of the hall, as if at an altar, receiving them, and they bow a little, genuflect almost, and then retreat. All evening she has held herself steady, and now, out of the blue, odd thoughts and images begin to encroach. She thinks of the pink hairband lying in the garden, and imagines it having been carried there by some nocturnal animal while she slept. She thinks of boats edging out into the great Atlantic swell, nudging and weaving over waves in the dark and then anchoring, and the fishermen unspooling nets, with the hum of the ocean and the heavens and the night in their ears. She thinks of a city street far away and houses with wooden porches and dark, damp crawl spaces underneath that would frighten a child. They lean down, these strangers, these overgrown children, and kiss her cheek now as if they know her, as if she is theirs, and as they straighten she looks at their faces, aghast, and for a moment she is far from this place, out in the ocean, cast alongside a big ship among dolphins and screeching gulls and desperate calls and cries and goodbyes. She would like to flee the hall now, or rise up to the rafters, to the dark shadows, to some quiet hiding place in her heart. Give Mammy a birdie, I said that day, and you cackled and lowered your head to mine and we nuzzled noses and I kissed you on the lips and the face and the eyes, my sweet delicious child.
She makes her way down the hall to the ladies’ toilet at the far end, grateful for the chance to walk, stopping a few times when she is waylaid. Then as she is about to enter, she feels a light touch on her elbow.
‘Alice, how are you?’ She turns and looks up at Hughie Sweeney. He puts out a hand and she stares, shocked, at the hand that takes hers and she cannot wait to wrest it back again. ‘I just wanted to say, good luck, you know, and… well… to wish you all the best.’
She gathers herself. ‘Oh, thanks, Hughie, thanks, but sure I’m not going anywhere.’
‘I know that, I know that. Still… all the same…’
For a moment she thinks he is going to say something terrible.
‘How’re all the family? Imelda and Helen?’ she asks quickly. ‘Their kids must be getting big now. And the twins!’
It had not been difficult to teach his girls at all. Imelda came in that first morning, the sweetest thing, with his eyes and his earnestness and his anxieties, and then Helen and later the twins, bright and polite and diligent. And one day, when Imelda was twenty and training to be a teacher herself, she stood at Alice’s classroom door to request some book, this beautiful, dark-haired intelligent girl, and Alice thought, You would have found me, you would have come looking, you would have trawled the ends of the earth and found me.
‘Oh, aye, Imelda’s eldest is at university now and Helen’s one is—God, I suppose, he’ll be starting soon too. Helen herself gave up work for a few years to mind the smaller ones.’
‘Ah, sure it’s hard to do both.’
‘Aye, it is.’
There was a time when she had hardened her heart towards him. When she had walked past him at the school gate or at the church door, with anger and resolve and pride in every stride. And let her back fix him firmly with blame.
They stand a little awkwardly now.
‘Aye, that’s the way,’ he says then. She smiles and makes to move away. ‘Things have changed a lot,’ he continues, a little urgently. ‘You’d have noticed that in the school too.’
She nods. ‘I did… big changes, indeed, over the years.’
‘Aye, for the better too, if you ask me,’ he says and then nods, and two women squeeze past them and when she looks up again he is still nodding. She is completely arrested by this and recognises in the lined face and the lock of grey hair that has fallen over his forehead the same uncertainty, the hesitancy, the faltering of the eighteen year old on the mountain that day. She stares at him now. In his bleak eyes, in his high furrowed brow she sees, for the first time, something of what he too must have endured all these years at the bottom of the hill—the permanent disquiet, the forfeiture. He had known the child’s name; when it was all over she had written him the name and the destination, and how that name must have threaded its way through him, attaching itself and gnawing into him, so that in moments of anger or anguish—when he raised his voice to Imelda or Helen or to Marie, when he laid a stick on the back of a beast or kicked a stable door—was it to himself the wrath was aimed, to himself and his lonely secret, his awful privation?
‘Aye, Alice, things have changed. If things were different… Aye… It’s not the same at all today. The young are right now—they do what they like. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, and they’re right too… They’ll have no regrets then.’
She is standing in the dark of the kitchen, her handbag dangling from her arm. A light is blinking out on the bay and down below is a land full of dark shapes. Her heart is racing. She would like to stand at the shore and look into the ocean’s depths and let the waves break over her feet and watch them turn and flow back out, to break on other shores again. She thinks of her life, her whole existence, as a catastrophe. She drops her arm and the bag slides off and she thinks how everything has sprung from one moment, one deed—the insane beauty and shock of the flesh, the fire of the soul—with consequences that have flowed out and touched and ruptured every minute and hour and day of her life ever since. That brought her to her own crime, her own awful act, on a Belfast street, the relinquishment. Greater than all that had gone before or would ever come after. Making her heart grow small, making extinct everything that was essential for a life. Was it all fated, she wonders? Was the desire fated? And the shame? And the crime—was the crime fated, too?
In the bedroom she switches on the lamp and sits on the edge of the bed. She searches for a word but there is none capable of containing what she feels. She narrows her eyes and a procession of words crosses her mind, like ticker tape, and then she feels its approach, the only word that is ample; it rises out of her in a voice she has never heard in these rooms, an exhalation, an utterance, a cry. John. Tears fall on her hands. She hears the faint hiss of the lamp. She looks around at the walls. Eventually her heartbeat slows. There is no repose, there will be no repose, just the long wait in these rooms, and the sea sighing in the distance.