Tuesday 18 June 2024

Us Sinners by Stephen Barrett, green tea

Father Joe has been and gone. Bet’s mother had the Last Rites on Tuesday so tonight was just a visit. A visit and a pray. Bet prayed with them too.

When she’d seen him to the front door, Bet said to Father Joe, ‘Thanks, Father. Mam really appreciates your visits. It was so good of you to come so late.’

‘Not at all, Bet.’ Father had touched her gently on the arm. ‘I’m on call at the hospital anyway.’

Bet had always liked him, a light-hearted kind of a priest, not too serious with all the stuff. He was the only person who could make Mam smile and blush now with his jokes. Tonight she had come out with one of her lines.

‘Father, these young ones,’ Mam said. ‘it’s all sex, sex, sex. It’s all they seem to talk about.’ She had puffed herself up as much as she could. ‘It wasn’t like that in my day. We were too busy having children.’

And Father Joe had burst into a huge laugh like Mam had meant it to be funny. Bet had watched her then, really close, to see if there was any glimmer there, but she couldn’t see a thing.

Now it’s just the two of them and Bet tries to get Mam to eat something. Sean said she’d had nothing but a half sandwich and a digestive in three days.

‘No, I’m fine,’ Mam whispers, waving her tiny hand. ‘No.’

‘Something to drink at least, Mam. You’ll dehydrate.’

She just shakes her head, her wiry hair set just like her jaw. Sean said she needs to keep up her fluids but Bet can’t see how. She can’t force their mother to drink. There’s three quarters of a cup of tea on the bedside table, sitting cold for hours. Bet looks up and sees Mam looking at her. She holds the gaze for a moment. Mam’s eyes are so dull, like she’s slipping away behind a greasy film. Bet looks into the still surface of the cold tea.

Bet has lived close by for years, close enough that, walking up her own stairs at night, she could stop on the landing and see her mother’s bedroom window. No matter how late Bet went to bed Mam’s light was still on and there was always the flicker of the old TV. From her landing at home Bet could see the painting of the Sacred Heart above Mam’s bed, the flickering light making it beat on the wall. Bet couldn’t stand there and watch for long.

The television is off now and the room is silent save for Mam’s breathing, coming shallow and ragged. Bet leans forward. ‘Can I not get you anything, Mam?’ Her mother doesn’t seem to hear, closes her dull eyes, and clasps the rosary in her left hand together with her right. In her gravel whisper she says, ‘Our Father Who art in heaven.’ Bet stays for a while and watches as she thumbs her way through the prayers. She listens to the rattle of the beads.

When Father was here earlier Mam had shown him. ‘I’ve had this rosary for over seventy years, Father. I got it for my Confirmation and that wasn’t yesterday, was it?’

Father had chuckled and feigned disbelief. ‘Och you and your tall tales, Mrs O’Dowd. I know you and if that were true those beads would be dust by now.’

When the first decade is done Mam squeezes her eyes tighter shut. ‘Mother of Christ, watch over them when I’m gone: Sean, Theresa, Veronica, and Elizabeth.’

Bet leans forward and gently touches the paper cold hands. ‘Mam, what about Marie? Will you not remember Marie?’ Her mother’s eyes remain closed and she begins the second decade. ‘Our Father Who art in heaven.’ Bet lets out a breath, gently squeezes the small hands, and sits back, looking up at the picture of the Sacred Heart. It has always frightened her, somehow bloody and cold.

At the end of the second decade Mam whispers the names again. ‘Sean, Theresa, Veronica, and Elizabeth.’ Bet closes her own eyes and sits with her through the rest of the rosary, through each prayer and the same list of names at the end of each decade. When it’s over she says, ‘Mam, you have to eat.’ Her mother begins the rosary again.

 

Bet is woken in her chair by the buzz of the phone in her jeans. She pulls it out and reads the message. Mam is still praying, working the beads through pale fingers. Bet pulls herself from the chair, sore in her back and neck, and goes downstairs. She leaves the lights turned off, stays standing, and calls Joanne from the dark of the living room.

‘Hey,’ Joanne says.

‘Hey you.’

‘You OK?’ She sounds worried.

‘Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. Tired.’

‘Yeah.’ Joanne doesn’t sound convinced. ‘You eating?’

Bet circles an arm around herself like she’s cold. ‘I’ll grab something. Don’t worry. I’m fine. Promise.’

‘Special promise?’

‘Most special promise. I miss you.’

‘I miss you too, sweetheart.’

There’s a pause there in the dark with the phone to her ear. Bet knows Joanne doesn’t know what to say.

‘She hasn’t stopped praying, Jo. For hours. For all the family except Marie.’ She hears Joanne let out some air. There is another space with no words.

Joanne says, ‘Has someone called Marie? Does she know?’

‘Sean said he called her.’ Bet squeezes the arm more tightly around herself. ‘I haven’t spoken to her yet.’

‘Maybe you should, sweetheart. You should call her.’

‘Scared.’

‘I know, Bet, but you have to do it. And you’ll have to do it soon.’

Bet doesn’t speak, just nods into the phone, hugging herself hard.

‘Will you come round, Bet? Later?’

‘I think I should be here for a while.’

Joanne doesn’t let another silence come and Bet loves her for that. ‘Eat something, sweetheart. Special promise, remember? Call your sister.’

Bet smiles. ‘Yes ma’am. I’ll call you in the morning. I love you.’

She stares at the phone’s green screen for a while, thumb on the keys. She’s squeezing the phone when the screen dims and she waits, watches as it goes to sleep.

In the kitchen she turns on a light and makes two cups of tea. She opens the bread-bin and sees a full loaf but closes the door again. Slowly, she takes the teas upstairs.

Mam’s mouth is barely moving. ‘… At the hour of our death. Amen.’ Her lips have no pink to them and Bet can see through her skin to the ridges. She can see the veins in her cheeks.

‘Warm tea, Mam. Fresh.’ Bet places the cups on the bedside table, watches the tea ripple then still. Her mother continues into the next Hail Mary. Bet knows she should try but she won’t. She knows that the words will just pass through this pale figure and into the wall. She sits down and warms her hands with the cup.

 

Bet wakes again with a start and the empty cup rolls on to the floor and she hears the front door click shut. Mam whispers on, ‘Blessed are you among women.’

Sean comes in still dressed in his scrubs. ‘You should be sleeping,’ he says to Bet and he looks at their mother. ‘And so should you.’ Mam’s eyes remain closed and she just carries on. ‘She been going long?’

‘All night,’ says Bet.

‘Mother of Christ, watch over them: Sean, Theresa, Veronica, and Elizabeth.’

Sean looks back at Bet. Bet just nods a small nod.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve eaten anything, Mam?’ Sean says.

Bet shakes her head. ‘She wouldn’t even stop for a sip of tea.’

Sean sits on the edge of the bed and slides a hand around their mother’s wrist. He looks at his watch and purses his lips. He strokes his mother’s arm and stands up. He nods at the door and Bet follows him downstairs with her empty cup and the discarded full one. Sean turns on the light in the living room and opens the dresser. He pours them a whisky each. ‘I honestly don’t know how she can do it.’

Bet takes the glass Sean hands her. ‘Sean, she hasn’t mentioned her once.’

Sean looks away. ‘No I mean just going on and on. I don’t know what she’s running on.’

‘Oh that’ll be stubbornness.’

‘Yeah. Sheer bloody mindedness.’

‘What did she say? Marie?’

Sean frowns. ‘You haven’t called her yet?’

‘I will.’ Bet wraps an arm around herself and takes a long swig of the whisky. She sucks it around her mouth, letting it burn.

Sean lays a hand on her shoulder. ‘You need to get some sleep, sis.’

‘I will.’ She squeezes her side a little and takes another mouthful of whisky. It singes her lips and she’s thankful for that. The two of them sit in silence for a while, drinking the whisky. Bet can’t tune out the muttering of incessant prayer from upstairs. The crucifix in the living room is a large one, dark wood. It hangs above the dresser, watching over the framed photographs: Sean and his wife; Theresa and her fiancé; Veronica and her husband; Bet’s graduation. There sits that old and young version of herself among her siblings bar one.

‘You should be getting on home,’ she says to Sean. ‘The family will want dad in the morning.’

‘I can’t leave you here on your own.’

‘Don’t be daft. No use three of us going through fifty decades of the rosary. All those Hail Marys are my penance, not yours.’

‘Now you’re the one being daft, Bet.’

‘Go home, bro. Give Jimmy and Anne a kiss from Aunty Bet.’

‘You’ll call?’

‘Of course.’

‘For anything at all. Just call. Call first thing anyway, OK?’

‘Amen.’

Sean gives her one of his huge hugs, holds her really tight and Bet feels the tears come. ‘Night, Sean. Get some rest.’ She kisses Sean on the cheek and eases the door shut behind him.

As Bet walks into the bedroom Mam is finishing another decade. ‘Mother of Christ, watch over them: Sean, Theresa, Veronica, and Elizabeth.’ Bet feels a flush of anger in her gut and it rises to her chest. She turns and walks back down the stairs, turns off the light in the living room, and breathes in the dark. She takes out her phone and calls Marie. A single ring and her sister answers.

‘You’re up,’ says Bet.

‘So are you.’

‘I’m with Mam.’

‘I’m not.’

Bet thinks about hanging up and pouring herself a whisky. ‘You want me to go, Marie?’

‘No. No, sorry, Bet. Tough time. For us all.’

‘How you doing?’

‘I’m OK. I’m good,’ Marie says. ‘We’re good.’

Bet nods into the phone. ‘That’s great.’

‘Laura wants us to have a baby.’

‘Wow.’ Bet sits down on the sofa. ‘That’s … that’s great, Marie.’

‘Yeah that’s what I said. I like the idea now. Especially now.’

Bet squeezes the phone a little. ‘Yeah.’

‘One in one out, isn’t that the way?’

Bet can still hear their mother praying. ‘Seems to be,’ she says.

‘Too harsh?’

‘No. It’s fine, Marie.’

‘Sean said this is it. Any minute, he said.’

‘Father Joe gave her the Rites on Tuesday but she’s holding out for the rosary world record.’

Marie laughs. ‘Sounds about right. I’m guessing there’s no room at the inn for her youngest?’

Bet’s fingers are sore from squeezing the phone.

Marie says, ‘Anyway, I doubt that even the intercession of a saint like her could save me.’

Bet’s mouth is really dry, her lips stuck together. ‘You mean ‘save us’?’

Marie’s voice gets a little harder. ‘I take it she never met Joanne?’

‘Marie …’

‘Of course she didn’t. Bet gets to stay in the bosom of the O’Dowds and might even manage a free ride to Paradise.’

‘I didn’t call for a fight, Marie. To make you feel bad.’

‘I’m not the one feeling bad, Bet.’

‘Are you going to come?’

‘We’ll be there, Bet.’ Marie says. ‘Both of us.’

 

Bet is still shaking when she returns to Mam’s bedroom. She sits beneath the picture of the Sacred Heart and listens to her mother almost hissing through the lines. ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’


 

About the author

Stephen Barrett is a Glasgow based writer and winner of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers award. His story The Break was a finalist in the See Me Scotland Short Story competition in 2012, and his story Here and There was published in From Glasgow to Saturn in 2017.

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