by Sheila Kinsella
I set my rucksack down and notice the strata of the sandstone doorstep, like tiny terraces of dirt and stone, worn away by years of footsteps passing over its threshold. I ring the doorbell.
‘So. It’s you, Eleanor.’ Mum looks me over, blocking the doorway.
‘My name is Leon now,’ I stare at her unblinking, ice-blue eyes.
‘I’ll call you by the name I gave you,’ she moves to close the door.
I hear a familiar voice shout from inside.
‘Ah Mum, let her in. Oops, sorry, him.’ Larry appears behind Mum and swings the door fair off its hinges. ‘Hi!’ He hugs me, pulls me inside and lifts the rucksack into the hallway.
His smell is evocative of my childhood, that faint sweaty odour.
‘Do you want a cuppa? Or is it a beer these days?’ Larry smiles and slaps my arm.
‘Larry, I’ll do it for you,’ Mum pushes past me, her face sour as last week’s milk.
Larry steps aside and leads me into the garden. The crazy paving Dad laid forty years ago zig zags across the yard, broken and loose in places. Tall blue Delphiniums dwarf the purple Campanula trailing over the ground. Pale pink roses are dotted all around the pergola like a pointillism painting.
‘Don’t mind Mum, she’ll come around.’ Larry sits down on a bench, faded grey by the rain and time.
‘Yeah, Larry. But when?’ I sit down opposite him. ‘It’s been six years.’
‘Anyway, how are you doing up there in Aberdeen?’ Larry smiles.
Fine,’ I reply. ‘I got a job as an environmental engineer. It’s going well. And you?’
‘Well, it’s not been easy.’ Larry picks at a hangnail on this thumb as he talks.
‘I imagine. I heard the garage closed.’
‘You always were the brainy one.’ Larry smirks. ‘Must have been all that cod liver oil.’ We both laugh at the memory of him passing the golden pearls to his little sister when Mum’s back was turned.
The silence between us is broken by a blackbird singing; its shrill intonation intersperses our conversation. How ironic, the bird’s symbolic meaning is of spirituality and knowledge.
A line of crows caw as they swing to and fro on the telephone wire looped across the street, waiting to pounce on roadkill. The tall trees at the end of the garden rustle as they blow in the breeze.
We speak at the same time.
‘No, you go,’ our words cross mid-air once more.
‘Don’t you dare say ladies first!’ I mock frown.
‘Seriously, you go.’
‘Were you there at the end?’ I bite my thumbnail; a piece splits off, satisfied, I pinch it with my forefinger and thumb and flick it away.
Larry looks up just as Mum arrives with the tray. As she sets it down on the table, the teapot spills tea over into the tray, mapping out small islands of brown liquid before merging into one.
‘Mum, it’s ok,’ I place my hand on hers. She shakes it off.
Flustered, she tuts and rushes her wiry little body back indoors to get a cloth. Larry and I exchange glances as if to agree to wait until the fuss is finished. She returns with a plate of biscuits, mops up the mess and exits stage right.
‘He wasn’t always lucid. The morphine saw to that.’
‘Did he mention you?’ Larry pre-empts my question. ‘Yes.’
‘What did he say.’ I breathe deeply.
‘He told me to make sure you weren’t isolated from the family,’ Larry puts his hand on mine for a second.
‘Did he die here?’ I realise I’m perched on the edge of my seat.
‘She didn’t want him to die in the house.’ Larry sighs. ‘He died in the hospice.’
‘Alone?’ I ask.
‘No, I stayed with him.’ Larry sniffs. ‘The nurses said he hadn’t long.’
‘Mum?’ I ask.
I look down at my feet and sigh.
‘Will you stay?’ Larry asks.
‘I booked the hotel,’ I reply. ‘But we can still catch up.’
‘He’d have wanted you to stay here.’ Larry emphasises the word here.
‘How can you stay here?’ I ask, raising my hands, palms upwards.
‘It won’t be forever.’ Larry sighs, ‘I’ll find a job soon.’ He twiddles the hairs of his beard as he talks.
‘Always the favourite,’ I smirk.
‘Not that old line again.’ Larry sniggers.
‘I’m of.,’ I make to stand up but Larry gestures for me to stay.
‘Look, I’ve something to tell you,’ he purses his lips together, ‘only not here.’
‘What?’ I ask.
Larry puts his finger to his lips, ‘We’ll talk tomorrow. The funeral is at St Mary’s, you need to be at the church for one-thirty tomorrow.’
Mum stands at the back door, arms folded over her pinny, eyes narrowed and lips straight across like a dash.
‘Mum, I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I touch her arm. She sniffs and looks the other way.
Next day, I stand in the funeral parlour looking down upon my Dad. His skin is cold and putty-like. His black suit emphasises the death-pallor. I tell him I love him and say goodbye.
Later, at the church, I wait with Larry and Mum as the mourners arrive. The shake hands with us and saying, ‘Sorry for your loss.’ Neighbours and distant cousins I no longer recognise traipse past to fill the pews. When there’s nobody left to arrive, I steer Mum into our pew. For a few seconds, I feel her hand touch mine like it used to.
The funeral ceremony seems interminable. The coffin is carried in by the pallbearers and laid to rest at the altar. The congregation strains to reach the high notes of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’ The organ plays a key too high for us. After the hymn, Larry reads the eulogy. My Dad was a good man, kindness itself, it’s true. I can’t fault it. Mum moves up next to me to fill the space Larry left.
Black funeral cars take us to the hotel in Canterbury for a sit-down meal. I remember coming here for family weddings, including Larry’s. The marriage didn’t last; he was back at our parents’ house within twelve months. The food is bland, salmon with mashed potato and a sprinkling of frozen peas. Mum is omnipresent. I can’t get to talk to Larry alone.
My chest binder is pinching under my arms, I have to release it. Now there’s a dilemma, no gender-neutral toilets here. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I go into the Ladies. I sit on the loo and unbutton my shirt to readjust the binder. I hear the clicking of heels and the door slamming. One woman goes into the cubicle next to me, pees but continues to chatter to the other outside.
‘Did you see the state of her?’ Her voice is high pitched, and she slurs her words together.
‘Short hair, business suit, white shirt and brogues! B-u-u-utchy baby!’ The woman outside shrieks.
I can’t resist. I flush the toilet and open the door.
‘Lesbe friends!’ The woman in the cubicle cackles.
‘Er… Mira, shut up.’ Her friend says as she stares at me, her mascara brush trails down her left cheek, her mouth making the shape of the ‘o’ in a doughnut.
I check my breast binder in the mirror, pulling it down at the sides and pushing my breasts back inside. I savour the moment when reflected in front of me, Mira emerges red-faced from her cubicle looking sheepish.
‘Ladies,’ I nod at them and leave, chuckling to myself.
‘What’s put that smirk on your face?’ Larry asks with a bemused look.
I recount the scene back to him. Soon his belly is aching with laughter.
‘Stop, stop,’ he snorts.
‘Oh, not the piggy snort laugh!’ He sets me off, and the pair of us are crying.
‘Have you no respect!’ Mum’s voice intervenes.
But that just makes it worse. We can’t stop. She stomps off in the direction of the Ladies. I seize my chance.
‘What’s the secret?’
‘Dad left everything to us.’ Larry says.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Well, he told me a while back that he put everything in a Trust,’ Larry says. ‘It means Mum can live in the house, but the capital is kept for us, his children.’
‘Does Mum know?’ I sigh.
‘I don’t think so,’ Larry raises his glass. ‘You know what she’s like. Hides everything under the carpet.’
‘Yeah, stiff upper lip and all that,’ I agree.
‘Look, it’s not an issue. I just wanted to tell you, that’s all.’
‘Thanks. I just hate this resentment she feels towards me.’ My eyes start to fill up. ‘I miss her.’
‘I know,’ Larry says.
Suddenly, I hear raised voices coming from the other side of the room. A door slams and crockery crashes to the floor. A waiter rushes over to the table.
‘Excuse me, I think you’d better see to your Mum.’ He’s breathing heavily, carrying a tray of dishes filled with apple pie and ice cream in one hand and pieces of broken china in the other.
‘In the Ladies,’ he pants.
I rise and hurry over with Larry in pursuit. The two women gossips I encountered earlier are shuffling back to their seats. Mira’s cheek is red and flushed. I overhear her saying that she just went for her.
My mum sits on the frilly pink chair in the women’s toilets. As she looks up at me, tears meander through the wrinkles on her face.
‘Mum, are you okay?’
She reaches her arms out to me. ‘I couldn’t let them say those things about you.’
‘It’s alright Mum. I don’t care.’ I hug her. ‘It’s not important what they think.’ Our eyes meet. ‘It’s what you think that matters.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She pulls a hanky from her sleeve. ‘It’s hard.’
‘Just try,’ I squeeze her arms, ‘just try.’
‘I will.’ She sniffs. ‘How can I go out there now? After this?’
‘We’ll go out together with our heads held high.’
About the author
Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. Blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy.
Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.