by Peter McCloskey
It was a little after six on an ethereal, blue-coloured morning, when Dame, fully dressed and holding a kettle boiled half-way to bubbling, carefully trod into the driveway and melted away a thin sheet of ice scorched overnight to the windshield. He started the car’s engine, a pitiful vehicle and left it running. He eased back inside, gentle with the door, careful not to disturb the sleeping children. His hair, what was left of it, had been lightly greased. His face already scrubbed and shaved. His shoes had been polished the night before at the kitchen table, the radio playing something soft while the boys in the garden tossed a ball back and forth. He had spent an effort then in front of the mirror that morning; wringing his hands over and over, scrubbing his face after a shower until he felt his nose would break if he didn’t stop. And shaving; shaving until he felt he could shear no further against his neck than to cut himself.
At twenty-four years Nora was found in the orchard. Her brother had searched for three days when she had not come home. “You could have died of pneumonia,” said Kathleen when her sister had been brought inside and warmed by the fire while the family stood around in a circle grumbling something about knowing better. She was found asleep against the trunk of a small tree clutching a bottle to her chest and now, many years later, she supposed, they’d all know why. In the village they talked for a little while, like they tend to do. Her father busied himself blaming her mother’s side and her mother in taking exception had little defence other than to directly blame her father’s. Neither truthfully meant a single of the word they said in anger.
And now Dame, at thirty-nine years of age had worked as an office clerk and a bartender, as a porter in a kitchen and a half-hearted salesman. He once drove a cab until he missed too much saying goodnight to his children, and so for the past seven years had been employed as a civil servant sat crooked over a keyboard, toiling upon a ladder he was repeatedly assured he was in the process of climbing. Each day he drove the hour-long road to the city, stopping and starting the whole way there and back.
And on this morning Nora woke as usual. She lay, staring at the ceiling waiting for her legs to warm. It was almost seven by the time she stuttered to the kitchen, boiled a kettle, toasted bread and threw it all in the bin. Her sister who wanted to stay the night, to sleep in the study, “In case he shows early Kathleen, that’s all,” was to arrive by eight, and Dame, Dame had written and said he would call ‘in and around ten’, and he had signed the letter in beautiful liquid ink, from what must have been a fountain pen ‘Sincerely Yours,’ and post-scripted a needless tender apology. And there was nothing it seemed in the kitchen but the clock on the wall that ticked and never tocked.
Dame had fed the dog, a gorgeously tempered old mutt that he knew might not last the winter. He made breakfast for the kids who would be downstairs once their mother negotiated it, once her good humour turned to temper; just as soon as one of them went too far and made a meal of brushing their teeth, or making their bed or indulged too avidly in one of any number of their time wasting tactics. And in the kitchen a giant spider climbed the wall and outside a bird flew into the greenhouse and a cat half concealed under the tree scurried away when the dog appeared, meandering into the garden thoughtlessly in his morning ritual. And Dame stood by the window and saw it all, quiet and tired and eager already for the day to end.
And in the kitchen Nora sighed and shuddered. She played with the radio, spinning the dial with the volume down low; too low to hear the songs her ears were too old for. She sprinkled flakes in the fish bowl, she polished the taps of the sink until they shined again.
And in the kitchen Dame’s wife breezed in. She crept up behind him, her arms folding over his front. She whispered something he didn’t hear. He breathed out, perhaps for the first time that morning and she tightened around him.
And Kathleen edged through the back door at a quarter to, shoulder first as if anticipating a tackle.
‘Well?’ she said.
And they sat, and hardly spoke a word, the two sisters and the clock. And Dame. And Dame, and what a lovely name and she wished it were hers. She would have called him Christopher, after the saint, but Dame, Dame was such a lovely name, she’d have never picked it, would never have thought to call a little boy such an odd and easy name.
And in a town not far at all away, Dame left the house. He kissed his children, two little boys of seven and nine and soon to be ten and held his youthful wife close, as though he wasn’t coming back in one piece and again she offered to go with him. And at eight o’clock he sat in his bottle green car in the driveway and considered it all for a moment. And he hoped, that all, for the most part would be well and…but then how was he to know.
A café that sat out on the pavement, nudged towards the road, was busy and dark, but by half past had quietened to only he and a young man who read a broadsheet paper and tried to look older than he was. He wore a hat and looked as ridiculous a young man in one can. Dame smoked most of a pack of cigarettes, drank two too many coffees and used the bathroom over and over until ten past nine. He spoke to a young mother with a squealing child who maybe had not slept, her eyes hollow and dark and glazed over with tepid exhaustion, as though she were only half there. He pulled a face into the pushchair, sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes and the baby smiled and stopped crying for a little moment, and the mother’s face lifted as the brief ceasefire took hold. Dame read a tabloid, he tried to eat, he paid at the counter, he used the last of his loose change to tip the waitress who smiled and was pleasant. Outside he took a ticket from his windshield and he placed it in the glove box with not a hint of annoyance and he drove away.
Kathleen boiled the kettle for the last time that morning which was her third occasion. Nora pulled a hanky from her chest pocket and folded it together creased and perfect and replaced it. Her hands shivered a little every time she heard a car slowly pass by and Kathleen paced the floor with her soft heels tapping a hollow rhythm on the stones. And the clocked ticked relentlessly. She muttered to herself and to Nora who smiled and felt sicker the longer it went on. She had changed from her nightgown into a smart and tidy suit that had been picked out a week before in a department store in town.
She had taken a bus in the afternoon. In the morning she tipped all the money from the jar on to the table, all pennies and coppers and rusty green coins. She stacked them in neat piles and put them all in bags and took the bus and went to town, into the bank and when the young woman behind the counter saw her coming, clinking and rattling along, she had that look on her face. And Nora smiled awkwardly as the coins were counted again, twenty minutes watching as young woman’s eyes reached for the ceiling over and over. And there was a lot there by the end of it, the woman had said so, enough to buy something nice. And with crisp new notes Nora felt her way through the town with the people who walked must faster than they had to, with the young men who cursed and spat without a word said to them. She had a nice lunch, a white coffee and a chat with the waiter who brought the bill. She bought the suit having spent a long time deciding on the colour and took the bus home again.
At half past nine Dame took the road out of town. He drove slowly and stopped at a garage. He filled the tank and cleaned the windscreen. He bought a cheap coffee and packet of mints and threw the coffee in the bin as he left. He waited behind for a car to pull back out on to the road. He could feel himself gripping too hard on the wheel, he could feel his shoulders taut and his head spin from the cigarettes, could feel a tight cool sweat under his skin. And then the other car was gone and he was waiting for the traffic to pass.
And in a traffic jam not far up the road Dame and his bottle green car waited at the back of the queue for the light to change. He lit a cigarette leaving only one in the pack and cracked the window. He undid the seatbelt he had considered not putting on at all as the queue trailed away before him. He stopped, two cars from the lights. He would take his second left and follow the orchard past the post office and the butcher shop where the road would be clear. He would take a right at the red roofed barn and turn down the hill, down towards the house.
‘Fifteen minutes or so Nora…Nora?…Nora?’
Nora stood at the sink. She washed a cup, a plate, three forks and six knives.
‘Kathleen, you should go home and wait. I would prefer that.’
The red roofed barn…
Down the hill and into the estate…
Nora sat alone in the kitchen. It was cold. Her bones were old now and so they took to a chill like sponge. She shivered worse and could feel in her stomach it was all about to come together, and everyone would know soon one way or the other. And now all she could think was, will he look like me and decided, that yes, most certainly of course, if even in only the littlest of ways.
Kathleen left by the front door and walked the footpath. She turned the corner onto Toll Street, she passed the postman, the bus-stop, a bottle green car and two school children who jumped the fence and ran up the trail to spend the day in the orchard swinging at the apple buds still too ripe to eat.
Dame sat still in the car. 9:58…
9:59…he phoned his wife…
… just to hear her voice.
… a voice all his own, most definitely his…
…in and around ten.
… and when the door was gently rapped and Nora got to her feet and saw her son, and he looked, just so much like he should have, and there he was, him alone, and there was nothing but nothing to say…and the clock went quiet and the ticking took to tocking and the house was suddenly a home because that’s always where he was going, he was just a little late.
Peter McCloskey lives in Belfast. He studied English Literature at the University of Ulster and works in the Arts in Belfast.