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RÍONA JUDGE MCCORMACK

 

 

 

 

 

Ríona Judge McCormack was the 2016 Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year, and the recipient of the  Sunday Business Post Short Story Prize and Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize. Her work has been published in The Irish Times, The Dublin Review and a number of international anthologies, and broadcast nationwide on Ireland's RTE Radio One as part of the Francis McManus Award.

 

 

 

 

In Our Golden Finery

 

 

How it would happen is I’d just be getting into a bit of work – the dishes, or digging out the old spring bulbs – my hands right in it, you understand, up to my arms in muck or suds. And then the call would come.

 

‘Ann!’ I’d hear him shouting. ‘Ann!’ The timing was something perfect.

 

He’d go on calling – ‘Ann!’ Over and over – ‘Ann!’ Like a child would, like you would, love, when you were still in the house.

 

If I were at the sink, I might take off the gloves slowly. I’d make a job of laying them on the draining board, one on top of the other, the fingers together. Only then would I go up.

 

Today, I can see him from the landing, his ankles out on show. The rest of him doesn’t give anything away, but the ankles are a shock. Thin and unlovely. Old. He’s down on his knees in the wardrobe, searching about.

 

This particular day, it could be any day, you understand.

 

He says, his head still in the wardrobe, ‘Ann, where’ve that black pair got to?’

 

I put one hand to the bone above my eye, where the skin is soft. It’s comforting, that softness. Knowing that there are soft parts of me left.

 

‘There’s only slippers here, and it’s wet out,’ he goes on. ‘Where are that pair for work?’

 

‘Pat,’ I say. There is a wait, and then he backs out of the cupboard, stiff and awkward, to look at me.

 

‘Only slippers,’ he says. ‘And it a Saturday. Joe’ll be wondering where I’ve got to. Did you move them?’

 

‘We gave that pair away. A long time ago.’

 

He gets irritated then, with that tone like he’s talking to one of the kids in class. ‘But I’ve put them away there. Put them there only yesterday.’

 

‘Patrick,’ I say, eyes closed. ‘I need you to get up now and come to the bathroom.’

 

‘Christ.’ He puts a hand on the bedstead and pulls himself up. ‘Am I to go in my bare feet?’

 

At this stage, I can see which way it’s going, so I get between him and the door. ‘Let me see those teeth,’ I say.

 

‘I will not,’ he says, though I can see he doesn’t like the way it makes him sound – like a child of four, balking at the bathtub.

 

I haven’t the time for this again, so I get a hand around his chin and get the mouth open.

 

‘You haven’t brushed,’ I say. ‘Back to the bathroom with you.’

 

He pushes me then – not hard, just to get me out of the way – and I fall. In thirty years he’s never pushed me. And I just sit there, on the floor, breathing. I know, in a background kind of way, that he is probably feeling terrible, really terrible now, but I can’t deal with that, with having to deal with that.

 

‘Joe’s gone,’ I say instead.

 

‘I’m sorry Ann, awful sorry. I didn’t -’

 

‘Joe’s gone,’ I say, loudly this time. ‘Died all of six years ago. Slurry pit. His son was with him but couldn’t get him out. He’d kept working the farm right up to then but after that they sold it.’

 

His mouth goes quavering, uncertain. One hand searches in his jacket pocket and brings out a cloth handkerchief. Who irons them? That's what I want you to think about, before you judge me. Who irons all those shirts and trousers?

 

Dabbing the handkerchief against his mouth he says, petulantly, ‘I don’t know why you’re telling me this.’

 

God help me, but I hate him then. Slowly, I get myself up. I smooth down the front of my blouse and walk past him, into the hallway.

 

‘Here.’ I take the frame down from the wall. ‘It was a lovely service. You were there.’

 

He puts the handkerchief back in his pocket and takes the photograph in two hands. His tremor is worse, though his hands are still good-looking things. Strong. You can imagine them turning the pages of books. You can imagine how a girl might want him still, looking at those hands.

 

‘I don’t understand,’ he says. Then angrily, ‘What’re you trying to pull?’

 

I take the photograph from him, tired now. ‘Come on, Pat. Let’s get you to the bathroom. You’ll feel better after a brush.’

 

He lets himself be led, but I can see his mouth working away as he thinks. When I unbutton his shirt he protests.

 

‘I’ve only just put that on.’

 

‘It’s yesterday’s. I’ll get you a fresh one.’ I go back into the bedroom, saying, ‘A blue one, how about that?’ When he doesn’t answer I shake out a shirt from the dresser, the one I bought him for the anniversary before he took up with the girl, and hold it against me. The cloth is a lovely thing, soft and almost furred. I’d run my hands over it in the shop, collar to cuffs, thinking how well it would suit him.

Now here I am, years later, standing in the bedroom, destroyed over an old shirt.

 

There’s a painting, in this palace in Vienna. A man holding a woman, bent over her, kissing her face. Not her mouth, you understand – her face. Kissing anywhere he can reach, desperate for her. And the woman is on her knees. She can’t stand. You can see it, how only that kiss is holding her up. They’re covered in gold, the two of them, caped in it. I sat in front of that painting at seventeen and I knew that this was the secret of the city, the thing that was holding it up. I thought that maybe marriage was like that kiss. That’s how it is being seventeen, in a foreign city.

 

I wished that kiss for you, some day, long after I’d given up wishing it for myself. 

 

Back in the bathroom he’s standing in front of the sink, a toothbrush useless in his hand. ‘Pat?’ I say, holding out the shirt. The look on his face almost makes me sorry. But I’m not sorry.

 

‘It was a lovely service,’ he says. ‘All the children there.’

 

‘It was.’

 

‘Priest had known him all his life. That’s good, you know. Sometimes they haven’t anything of worth to say.’

 

He looks down at the toothbrush, his mouth working again. I should put a hand on his shoulder, you probably think, say something reassuring. Instead I leave him there and go down to the kitchen and sit looking at the gloves on the draining board. I’m still holding his shirt by the shoulders.

 

I left him once, not long after I found out about the girl. An ex-pupil of his, grown since the classroom and in new clothes – but a girl still. I’d even seen her at the start of that summer, fresh from a year in Frankfurt. By the time I found out it was almost over. What got to me was how predictable it all was. It seemed a poor way to remember you. I suppose I’d believed that, if nothing else, we might claw each other bloody in interesting ways.

 

I’d packed a case and driven to my sister’s in Glasnevin. I remember there were hardly any birds in the city. If I ran a finger along the sills it came away black with soot. ‘It’s grief,’ my sister said. ‘You’re still grieving for that child.’ Meaning you, Ciara. When I came back he had built out the kitchen and knocked a long window in above the sink, and we didn’t mentioned the girl again.

 

We had you, I suppose, holding us together. We had that.

 

I am thinking all this when I hear him come into the kitchen. He’s started shuffling, lately, like a much older man. Like he’s playing at being old.

 

‘Ann,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry.’

 

I fold the shirt in on itself. ‘You don’t remember?’

 

‘I don’t - no.’

 

‘Not any of it?’ I can’t help prodding, though they tell me I shouldn’t. ‘Or is it you don’t want to?’

 

‘No,’ he says. ‘No.’

 

I laugh, and it’s a strange laugh. I am laughing at myself. I had my chance, you see, and I had come back. ‘Oh, Patrick Malachy Murphy,’ I say.

 

‘Tell me,’ he says. ‘Tell me it all.’

 

And the strange this is, I don’t want to, not anymore. But he asks again, begging now: ‘Tell me.’

 

It’s a hard thing to have the worst of your life laid out together, without the years between to soften them up. But it’s a kind of justice, too. There is an obscenity to the forgetting. The doctors tell me it’s not right, making him live it all over. But I had to live it. I have to keep on living it.

 

When I get to losing you, Ciara, he cries. I’m jealous of his grief, the rawness of it. The easiness of it.

 

‘I want to see her,’ he says.

 

I find him socks, and get the shoes out from where I’ve hidden them. There were a few nights when neighbours had knocked on the door, embarrassed, returning him half-dressed and belligerent. I’d hidden the shoes after that.

 

We drive out there in silence. There’s frost in the air, and I should have brought him a scarf. But how can a man of fifty-two not know how to dress himself? How can that be? I try to trip him up sometimes, catch him out. But he insists on forgetting and so goes without a scarf.

 

When we get up to the gates he gets a fearful look on his face, like if he doesn’t go in it won’t be real. Like I’m his mother and not his wife. Wanting me to say, ‘Never mind now Pat, let’s get on home, there’s nothing there.’   

 

But I don’t. So in we go. And there, by the east wall of the churchyard, we come upon it.

 

Our child’s name. Your name. A little weathered, a little older, now.

 

‘Ah, Ciara,’ he says. ‘Ah, Ciara.’

 

It could be any day, this particular day.

 

I’d wished, often, to lose certain memories. I’d even keep the ones of the girl if I could be spared you. I’ve heard of people who forget, who wake in the morning unknowing, until they think, I must tell Ciara that, or, I must get Ciara out of bed. They talk about it as a cruelty, remembering over and over again. But I would like to have those minutes of not knowing. For months after we lost you I swam up mornings out of heavy sleeping and it never left me, not even in the waking.

 

After Vienna I had my heart set to study art, did you know that? On the Belvedere campus in Dublin. But instead I followed your father to Naas town. Here we are now, on our knees in our golden finery. Here we are.

 

Beside me in the dark of the bed that night, he sleeps a beautiful sleep.

 

 

I wake the next morning to the sound of banging, or knocking - the front door, at that hour? I find him downstairs at the sink, fumbling the kettle under the tap.

 

‘Pat,’ I say.

 

‘We’re out of tea,’ he says, not turning round. ‘I’ll get more on the way back. She’ll be waiting, so it’ll have to be on the way back. I’ve to get her, before she freezes waiting.’ Water spills from the kettle. He’s wearing no trousers, yesterday’s stained shirt.

 

‘Pat,’ I say again.

 

‘You should get yourself ready. Ciara’s waiting.’

 

I stand in the doorway for a long moment, watching his back. Then I go to him and touch it, the cloth of his blue shirt, the stoop that is coming on too early.

 

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘We’ll go get Ciara. But tomorrow, love? She’s very busy just now. Maybe tomorrow?’

 

‘Tomorrow,’ he says doubtfully. The kettle waits in his hand, heavy with water. ‘Yes. Tomorrow,

so. Tomorrow.’

 

©2017 Ríona Judge McCormack

 

 

Author Links

 

'Some Strange Moon' in The Irish Times

'No 3 Western Deep' in The Business Post

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More work by Ríona in Southword

 

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