Spicy potato wedges.
Green curry wantons.
Sitting before your dressing table mirror, drawing a brush through your hair, you feel the September chill against your ankles. Outside, the sky is mute. Winter is on the way.
You work in considered strokes, slowly pulling the brush past each resistance. Pretty soon you see the loose hairs stuck to the bristles. You pinch them off, holding each one before your face.
Downstairs, a baby cries.
It’s Friday morning. Tom will be busy till late afternoon with the practice, which means you must handle the preparations for the party. You picture him behind his desk, nodding patiently at some woman whose child has swallowed an earring. Or godknowswhat.
Such a patient man, your husband.
You lift an earring – a gold-plated bangle– from the jewellery saucer and insert it into your ear. In its heart spins a cut-glass stone. Tom gave it to you as a present after he found out you were pregnant. You tilt your face, allowing the cold September daylight glint off the stone, making its insides shine with threads of green and blue.
Going downstairs, you fill your glass with hot water from the kettle – your mother’s recipe for perfect skin. A pair of sliding doors opens onto a patio and you sit beside them, remembering how as a young girl you’d run your fingers along her forehead, the smoothness of her skin there like silk. What you wouldn’t give to have her with you, to hear her words of wisdom.
You look up into the branches outside. Two proud chestnut trees stand metres from the house. Your mother planted them when you were born: one for you and one for your brother. Their leaves shake. You feel shadows passing over your face and you think how, soon, they’ll be gone and only the branches will remain.
Your laptop and sketchpad lie on the ground next to you. You like to work here, in the mornings, placing the finishing touches to architectural sketches, reviewing project outlines, attending Zoom calls. Since the pandemic started this spot has become something of a haven, a retreat whenever the sickness or the closeness gets too much.
You slide open the doors, inviting in the rich bog atmospheres – its moods – which, like yourself, have the habit of darkening at the hint of rain. The sky has pressed itself into a grey slab. Clouds spoil the view of bogside fields and trees.
In the distance, the hammering of a tractor pierces the morning stillness. The neighbour, Billy Dunne, is out doing the rounds. You wonder, given the lateness of the year, what sort of work Billy is up to, or if he has simply determined to outrun his thoughts.
The hammering grows louder as it approaches. The tractor moves across the fields separating your two houses – you feel it’s shake in your ribs – before finally the noise reaches a singular sustained pitch, a drone almost, and Billy pulls beside the stonewall boundary between your fields. He drives along it, slowly, holding your gaze, before turning away.
After breakfast, you throw on your jacket, grab the keys of the Jeep, and go into the hall. As you’re leaving, the front door opens and a short woman wearing a surgical mask enters pushing a boy.
“How many times have I fucken told you?”
The boy holds open a plastic bin-bag in front of his mouth. The pair of them freeze, seeing you, and the suddenness of the motion causes the woman’s mask to flop off her ear.
“Excuse me Missus Beauchamp,” she says, fixing it back in place.
The way she says it – Beecham – reminds you why you dislike country people. The boy begins retching into the bin-bag.
“Mrs Edgeworth,” you say.
Gouts of foam start dribbling from the boy’s mouth. The woman plants her hands on the boy’s shoulders.
“Is that your young lad?” you say.
Mrs Edgeworth nods, still holding the boy braced in front of her, like a shield.
You look him up and down fully. “He looks nothing like you.”
Mrs Edgeworth stiffens, hearing this. “Johnny’s not feeling the best at the moment. Aren’t you not Johnny?”
“He’s very pale,” you say.
“It’s just a bug,” Mrs Edgeworth answers, sharply. “The schools are full of it.”
You say nothing.
In a moment of idleness, Mrs Edgeworth allows her gaze roam about the hall. On the wall nearest the front door is a picture of your father in fishing gear with his arm round Tom’s shoulder. Two brass nameplates hang next to it in which the names Dr Tom Beauchamp & Dr Justin Carthy have been inscribed.
“Is your husband about?” she says, finally.
You shake your head. “I’m afraid Tom’s quite busy this morning.”
“Do you know when he might be free?”
“I’m sorry, “ you say, pausing just a moment for effect. “Do you want me to try and squeeze you in?”
“No no no…” says Mrs Edgeworth, flapping away the idea. “I’m not the sort of woman that would skip a queue.”
“There’s no one would think that.”
There is a silence, then, in which each of you consider talking about the pandemic, and its effects on your lives.
“I’m sorry Mrs Beecham,” Mrs Edgeworth says. “But it’s really your husband that we need. There’s not much you can do.”
Something pulses through you. A heat. You feel it in your neck.
“I’m afraid the waiting room is closed,” you say, softly.
Mrs Edgeworth laughs, “It’s practically snowing out!”
“That been our practice since the pandemic started.”
Mrs Edgeworth pushes her son towards you.
“Look at the state of him,” she says. “He’s half-frozen already.”
“I’m sorry,” you say.
She looks at you then, a shade of cruelness entering her eyes. “You wouldn’t put him out if he was one of your own.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s really nothing I can do.”
Walking from the Jeep, listening to the crisp crunch of your heels on the gravel, you hold shut the wings of your jacket. Mrs Edgeworth was right: it’s absolutely Baltic. Already the birch trees along Lizzie Dunne’s drive are dusted with snow.
You climb over the tubular steel cattlegate alongside Lizzie Dunne’s house and skirt the winding, frozen path towards the salon. Dozens of garden-gnomes stand dotted around the yard, some of which are taller than your hips. Like little children. Most have been painted red and white, gaudily: the red paint has begun fall away in flakes. Billy Dunne’s caravan is also behind the house. Lizzie’s father allows him the use of their yard. Two of the caravan’s wheels have been replaced with breezeblocks and the concrete around its outline has turned grey.
Lizzie’s salon is a renovated granny flat at the bottom of her garden: grey pebble dashed exterior; neat white window boxes displaying the remains of onion plants. She’s had sinks and salon chairs installed to cater for the surge in pandemic clientele. There’s a sunbed in one corner, like a gigantic egg and, next to it, a lava lamp churns out purple foetus shapes.
“If you ask me,” says Lizzie. “A lot of these are just your classic women-haters.”
Lizzie picks up a plastic squeeze-bottle of serum and splodges some onto your head. You feel its soft heaviness dribbling down your neck.
“Maureen is a bitch. Her sister’s the same. She’s jealous of you now you’re up in that big house and she’s in some shitty council flat. Sure you know all their fucken secrets.”
In the mirror you see Billy in a pair of blue overalls spraying the sides of the caravan with a hose.
“What’s Billy at?” you say.
“Doreen’s not talking to him,” she says.
You lean head back, resting your neck on the sink. Lizzie feeds her fingers through your hair.
“He didn’t say,” Lizzie says. “But there was some shouting match here earlier.”
Lizzie’s fingernails dig into your scalp. You wince. Thumbs jut into your skull’s hollows. Steadily Lizzie’s voice grows small and distant, like you’ve been plunged into a cold flowing stream – you drift deep into its icy hush – so that when you hear the hairdryer bolts you back into your senses.
“WHAT’S THIS I HEAR ABOUT A PARTY?” she shouts, over the hairdryer’s noise.
“IT WAS TOM’S IDEA,” you shout back
For a moment Lizzie says nothing. She places her hand on your shoulder, looks at you in the mirror, then goes back to the drying.
“WHENABOUTS ARE YOU DUE?”
“AH, IT’S NOT FOR ANOTHER WHILE YET.”
Hot air brushes your neck. You feel a warmth stinging your eyes. Adjusting your cape, you notice little dustings of red hair settling between your thighs.
“TOM GET’S EXCITED ABOUT THINGS,” you shout. “THAT’S JUST HIS WAY.!
After a moment’s deliberation, Lizzie holds up a sheaf of your hair.
“YOU OKAY WITH THAT LENGTH?”
“PERFECT,” you shout.
The hairdryer stops. Lizzie stoops down. “What’s this?” she holds up something small and sparkly. The earring Tom gave you. You take it from her and shove it in the pocket of your jacket.
“It must have fallen out while I was brushing,” she says.
Lizzie says, innerly, “Jesus they’re beautiful.”
“Tom got them in a jewellers near the Coombe.”
Lizzie punches you on the shoulder. “Lucky bitch.”
The carpark of SuperValu is packed. Snow speckles your windscreen. Already people’s headlights are on, their wipers flashing. You watch an old woman shuffle across the snow weighed down with bags of shopping and think of your mother lugging buckets of logs. Opening your purse, you pull out a packet of Mayfairs and light one. You allow the pain of that first, sharp inhale to linger in the chest a moment – what a relief! – then buzz down your window and breathe the smoke into the cold clean air flowing through the gap. You smoke away peacefully for a minute or so before posting the butt into the snow.
Two sweet potatoes
Warm air blasts your face as you step inside.
Behind you, the doors slide shut. You flap your jacket’s wings to release the trapped weather. In front, bunches of coloured flowers stand arranged in plastic buckets. Hyacinths. Chrysanthemums. Yellow-lipped tulips. You find herself drawn to them, their wild colours and shapes, absently lifting a bunch by its stem and listening to the trickle of juices beneath. Your mother used keep her kitchen always with fresh flowers. The morning she learned that your father, her husband, had gotten the receptionist pregnant, she bought a dozen baskets of primroses and arranged them throughout the house.
You reach into your pocket and pull out a rectangle of scribbled cardboard.
Going around the shop you have the sensation that the aisles are floating past you. You hold out your hand, trail your fingers along the apples.
Blue food colouring
You’re behind an elderly woman in a pink woollen hat. Some flakes of snow are melting on the brim; all she has on the belt is a loaf of bread. You start unloading your groceries. They judder forward: you follow alongside them. You hear the elderly woman counting out change. She keeps getting confused and starting over. After the old woman is gone, you go around to the far side. The cashier smiles at you and raises her eyebrows.
“Excuse me,” comes a man’s breathless voice.
You look up and she Billy Dunne standing in front of you with a bottle of pink gin. He gestures to the conveyor belt.
“Is all this stuff yours?” he says.
Your heart begins to flutter. “Did you follow me?”
You move closer to your groceries, slightly. Billie places down the bottle of gin, wedging the NEXT CUSTOMER between your piles. He looks you in the eye: and you get the sense the drink off him. His eyes are dark and out of focus. Eventually, his gazes eyes arrives at your stomach.
“So,” he says to you quietly. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
The cashier’s voice breaks into the moment. “Cash or card?”
“Don’t fucking mess with me,” Billy says.
“Cash,” you say to the cashier, foostering in your pockets.
“Is that thing mine?” he says.
You’re still foostering in your pockets when you feel Tom’s earring.
You think back to the night in Billy’s caravan, the awful paisley carpet burning your knees, stealing out through the yard past Lizzie’s child-sized gnomes, scaling the gate, racing the backroads in tears.
“Tell me now,” Billy says. “Is that thing mine or Tom’s?”
You stand back from the till, not quite yourself suddenly but more like piece of glass falling through a dream. Something pulses through you. A heat. You feel it in your neck. Billy stands there breathing.
You say softly, holding your stomach. “It’s mine.”
Colm McDermott was born in 1988 and grew up in Kildare. He completed a degree in Pharmacy in Trinity College Dublin and worked for a time in the pharmaceutical sector. In 2014, his short story ‘Absence’ was shortlisted for the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Award and was subsequently published in Davy Byrnes Stories 2014 by The Stinging Fly Press. His work has been published in Southword, Writing4All, The Galway Review, Anomaly, and Cork County Council Press. In 2016 he completed an MA in Creative Writing in UCD.
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