We had never really spoken, Fionn Casson and I—unless you count: ‘Chemistry is definitely in A3’ or: ‘Mr Rodgers said he wants to see you in his office’ or: ‘Here, you dropped this.’
But I did. I counted every small encounter, making a black line on the side of my writing-desk in my bedroom for each one. By the time fifth year came around, we were on one hundred and twenty three. With each stroke I moved towards him, to where I felt we were destined to be, way out beyond those trivial exchanges and the embarrassment of our years.
He was beautiful. Not handsome, not rugged, but beautiful. No blemish or pimple spoiled his skin. The other boys rubbed themselves raw with lotions that promised to unblock every pore. His wolf eyes—clear and blue as the sign hanging over McCaffrey’s ice cream parlour—reached deep inside me. When he was near it felt like a whisper tickling my ear or a breath upon my neck.
And then he left—a new town, the teacher said.
A new life, a new me.
I mourned what had never been mine. I locked myself away in my room for days—lying on the bed, blinking tear-clogged eyes at my desk and all that it had promised. I heard my mother pace the landing. When she was still, I imagined her ear pressed against my door. The rise and fall of her muffled phone conversations with Dr Byrne reached me through the floorboards as she wore down her good carpet in the sitting-room below. In time, and to her relief, I yielded to my life again; rising to take my lessons, my exams and four years later, my vows. I married Niall Masterson. A good man. A handsome man. A man with no backbone.
I became the undertaker’s daughter-in-law.
Masterson and Son were the undertakers in Ballymore. Gráinne, Niall’s mother, ran the show. Her husband, Peter, had himself undergone the full treatment in the mortuary one year before my arrival in the household. No one knew from what he had died and its mystery had consumed the town:
‘He was fit as a fiddle.’
‘A horse of a man.’
‘Not a day sick in his life.’
I had laughed when conversations stretched to dark deeds and potions mixed beyond the velvet curtains.
‘Oh come on, Mam, you’re saying she poisoned him?’
‘You may scoff, Jeanie, but there’s something behind those eyes of hers,’ my mother said.
Back then, Niall and I were barely anything at all. A couple of dates here and there. One of those flings I had never thought would amount to much but somehow, a year later, it had manifested into a full blown relationship. My loneliness had brought him to me, my belief that true love was a myth made me stay.
The day I first met Gráinne, I stood before her a nervous wreck. The smallness of the town meant that she knew the stock from which I came. My aunt had been in her class at school, but used hang to around with a different crowd.
‘She thought herself too grand for the likes of us,’ I remembered Chrissie telling me, sitting at our kitchen table, all painted nails and cigarette smoke. ‘All I’m saying is I wouldn’t trust that one as far as I could throw her.’
Now Niall held my sweating palm as Gráinne sat on her couch, assessing me.
‘Isn’t she just gorgeous, Mam?’ He smiled with pride as I squirmed, embarrassed, by his side.
And in that moment I caught it—the jealous eye falling at my feet, rising slowly to coil over my legs, over my hips, up, until it dug deep within my chest, traversing the broken edges of my heart, gathering up the secret of his unforgotten name before settling sulkily on my face.
‘Jeanie, such a pretty name, for one so…’
Gráinne was stunning in her youth, apparently; lads buzzed like flies around her. ‘But when she opened her mouth they’d run.’ Aunt Chrissie again. ‘Oh, she had a tongue on her, alright. Your man was a saint, though, the husband, Peter. A looker too. She cast her spell and stuck her claws in good and tight. The man had no chance.’
Standing in their house that first night, I dared to steal a glance at Gráinne’s face and the folds of withered skin, but saw no trace of what she had once been. Over the years that followed, I would witness her delusion as she looked into the hall mirror every day, preening brittle echoes of long ago. In time, I would refuse to even glance at my own reflection there, so sure was I that something of her lingered, clawing at my skin, stealing my youth and my allure.
I married Niall that autumn. And as the leaves fell like confetti on our heads, their colour warming my face, I knew I did not love him as I should.
I moved into the family home. By day I witnessed Gráinne fawn upon her son.
‘There’s no one quite like my Niall for the bit of embalming. He has them drained as quick as you like, isn’t that right, son?
‘Ah, Mam,’ he’d say, grinning.
But at night, when we slept, I imagined she sucked the marrow from his bones, and twisted his spine so he hadn’t the strength to contradict her or have an original idea of his own.
‘Hold on a while there now, Jeanie—move the sofa? Ah no, Mam has always liked it there, she says she can see who’s coming a mile off.’
‘It’s normally a fry on a Thursday, I’m not sure she’d go for Indian.’
‘The finances are Mam’s department. She’s the brains of the operation.’
In the pictures on the grand piano that no one ever played, she was the only person you saw—the others, father and son, seemed faded, only whispers of who they should have been. Thankfully, our wedding photo never made it there, to that, her personal shrine. Instead, it remained in its box, lying unopened on top of the out-of-date missals that lined the bookshelves under the stairs.
Whilst they worked in the adjoining mortuary, I walked the house. Room after mournful room, bereft of any colour, stuffed full of frills and furniture. I was a voyeur passing through, never allowed to touch or to take part.
‘Sure, it’ll be more trouble than it’s worth,’ she said. ‘You don’t know where a thing is in my kitchen. I’ve been juggling this place and making the dinner all my life, I’ll not be stopping now.’
With my place decided, I read in bed. Book after book—the library was in danger of running out of those I had yet to read—and day after day, except for Saturdays. Saturday was my day to smile. I worked in Frayne’s chemist. Before I married Niall, I couldn’t stand it; after, all that changed. Suddenly the ailments of the town became a wonderful curiosity. I listened well to Mr Frayne who oversaw my counting of the pills. I loved the endless drawers of things I could not pronounce, mysterious tablets with transformative powers.
The Irish National Formulary became my book of fascination, I read it cover to cover. Sometimes I was allowed to borrow it, on the condition I dropped it back Monday morning.
‘First thing, mind,’ Mr Frayne always said, as I pulled the door shut and waved my assurance through the window.
‘God, she is such a cow,’ my mother would empathise when I stopped at hers on my way home. ‘I wish someone would offer to cook me a meal. I’d be happy with a slice of toast. Honestly, those brothers of yours—selfish, just like their father.’
Mam always managed to make me feel better, but that changed once I stepped back over Gráinne’s threshold.
‘Good of you to join us. It must be nice to be a lady of leisure, gallivanting about the town.’
I began to wither. I could feel it in my bones, the gradual wasting. I wondered if I was shrinking. I weighed and measured myself, holding on to the Formulary like it was my only protection against her and my growing insanity.
It was the dead that saved me in the end.
‘Here, Jeanie?’ Niall called up the stairs to me one Friday. ‘How are ya with a bit of hairstyling?’
He was desperate, he said. There had been a spate of deaths and, despite Gráinne’s insistence that he could manage on his own whilst she attended her Tidy Towns meeting, he had caved under the pressure.
When she returned, she found me elbow-deep in shampooed hair.
‘It takes years and years of practice, Niall. We are trained professionals. There are standards. You can’t expect her to pick it up just like that.’
But I had.
On Friday mornings when I was allowed to minister to them, Gráinne being out at various appointments, I’d sing as I carefully bathed and dried each limb. Their hair I gently cleansed and brushed. Their skin I moisturised to a shiny hue, carefully massaging every last wrinkle. The make-up I applied with equal care, covering every sign of what had brought them there. And finally the clothes, chosen by those who loved them, left on the chair inside the door—underwear, shirts, suits, dresses, all so perfectly cleaned and pressed, their final expression of love and longing. I held each article reverently, paying homage to that toil.
My work was slow. Niall, so deferential around his mother, would slag me for my diligence. But as people cried over what I had created, he learnt to stop and give my work its due.
‘He was never that good-looking when he was alive,’ Mrs Drew said when her husband was laid before her.
I brought in business from all around.
‘Why, Jeanie, who would have thought you had such talent?’ Gráinne said, smiling, her teeth nearly popping out of her head as she read the latest bank statement.
But when the dead started to die in time for my Friday slot, wanting only me and not her to tend them, her joy began to fade.
‘If I were you I’d use more rouge.’
‘If I were you I’d not use conditioner.’
‘If I were you I’d watch my step.’ That one under her breath, though my hearing was better than she supposed.
For a while, the tide began to turn, or so it seemed. There was even talk of children. Niall and I laughed with the excitement of it all. But that brief happiness seemed too much for Gráinne to bear. And while my guard was down she sprinkled hatred on our pillows and filled our shoes with darkness so everywhere we walked no light would follow.
‘Well, we can’t blame Mam for this,’ Niall said on the night I held the evidence of our seventeenth barren month in my hand.
‘Isn’t low sperm count genetic?’
‘Christ in heaven, Jeanie, don’t be such a bitch.’
‘It’s this place, Niall, there’s something not right. I’m telling you. It’s in the walls, and it’s creeping into our skins, I know it. I feel it.’
‘Maybe it’s you, Jeanie. Have you ever thought of that, huh? That it’s your madness infecting us? Feck this!’ He stormed out, leaving the bedroom and me to my pacing and my hatred.
No child was ever conceived.
My tears swelled and flowed as I continued to tend the bodies, filling them with even more beauty than they had known in life. At wakes, their people whispered and stared in awe at what death had created. I stood at the back of the room, drained, as they filed past.
And then, without warning, Fionn Casson returned. Nine years on, he walked into Masterson Undertakers and back into my life.
‘Hi,’ he said as I lifted my head from the reception, ‘I rang last night and spoke to Niall—Wait… it’s Jeanie, right?’ His smile was sad but kind. ‘I never thought you’d still be here, in the town, I mean. It’s Fionn, Fionn Casson, we were in school together?’
My heart began to knock against my chest as I listened to him tell me of his father’s death, the illness that had killed him and his wish to be buried in Ballymore. It took all I had not to close my eyes and record his voice forever in my soul.
Niall arrived to shake his hand and take him to the office. As I sat and pretended to work, my eye wandered to the glass divider and to his neck, his jawline, his cheek. I craved him now as much as I had at seventeen. Mentally I drew another line on my old desk: one hundred and twenty-four. And then he turned and caught my eye.
He kissed me three days later, after his father’s funeral. We drank each other in. Desperate to reach inside and taste all there was to know. His fingers traced the sadness on my skin. And when they touched my lips he graced me with his future. I swallowed deep and cried into his heaving body. I held on tightly to his hope. Tasting the possibility of escape.
She must have smelt our love in the air long before he came to settle his bill.
‘He’s such a nice man, Jeanie. So handsome, don’t you think?’ she said after he left. She was watching me carefully, his cheque still in her hand.
‘I hadn’t really noticed,’ I said, not lifting my head.
‘Oh, Jeanie, have you not seen his eyes? If I were only ten years younger. Bewitching.’
‘If you say so,’ I said, making neat piles of all that I could find on the desk.
‘He’s quite taken with you.’
A coldness filled the air as I felt her eyes bore into my back.
‘Don’t treat me like you treat my boy, Jeanie. I’m no fool.’
I cowered where I stood.
‘I suppose you think you can just up and go. Is that what the pair of ye are at?’
The question hung between us. Defeated, I sat down on the chair, but still I would not lift my head.
‘Believe me, Jeanie,’ she said, bending to my ear, ‘I’d happily pay your taxi fare to wherever lover boy might want to take you. But I’ll not see you break Niall’s heart. Watch your step, my girl, or you will regret it.’
I did not breathe until she’d left me there alone. And then a moan, I was not sure at first was mine, cried out long and pitiful into the room. It took all I had not to run after him, to leave right there and then. I should have.
She killed him four days later—a single car crash on the Kilgarry bypass. The coroner could have said whatever he liked, that he was drunk as a lord, or high as a kite, or asleep at the wheel, I did not care. I knew the truth. I knew that she had planted her poison somehow or cast her spell to force his car to swerve. She had taken him from me, and I had let her.
They laid him out before me.
‘Such a tragedy, Jeanie, so young, so beautiful, don’t you think?’ she said, watching me.
When the door closed behind her, I lay on top of his body and cried into his soul. His coldness crept into me, moving through every pore and cell until I was complete. And then I let him go. From somewhere deep inside I found the will to wash and groom the boy who had left me behind.
‘Christ, Jeanie, he’s like some kind of angel. What do you be washing these lads with?’
Love, I wanted to tell Niall, love. But I could not look him in the eye.
Later, while mother and son slept deeply, I moved about the house and gathered up my life. I left my bags outside her room and entered without a care. My fingers trailed along her bed-frame, touching her dead cells fallen there. From the shelf, her porcelain dolls accused me of the thing I’d yet to do. Her shoes, racked, row after row below, sat ready to pounce. A pillow, that’s all I needed. I could see the very one—pink and frilly, discarded at the foot of her bed. I felt its weight. I lit the candle in her windowsill to summon up the spirits, to let them know another of their kind would soon be on her way. And as I stood a moment there, the clouds moved on, letting the moonlight flood the room. It had never shone so brightly. Stepping into its power, I felt him touch me one last time, soft prickles upon my skin, releasing me of all that raged within.
The candle flame was long blown out by the time I left that night. I drove along the moonlit road away from death and out beyond, to all that I would be.