by Liam Murray Bell
There are only two houses on that side of the glen: the MacNeils, who rarely get anything beyond a bill, and Debbie, in the old schoolhouse. She sends a parcel every week or so and it comes back, a few days later, as ‘‘return to sender.’’ ‘Sorry,’ I say, as she opens the door. ‘Another one.’
‘Never mind, Sam.’
She runs a hand over the cardboard. It’s her daughter Beth she sends them to, although they’re for the granddaughter really. Wee Elsie. I went to school with Beth. She was a pleasant soul, willing to forgive even those who made fun of her lisp. Those who called her Bess. I don’t blame her for flitting off to Aberdeen, though, and I certainly don’t judge her for not forgiving her mother.
‘Nice enough day. Only a drizzle.’
‘It seems so, Sam.’
‘Came across two stags on the road out.’
‘Fighting were they? Rutting?’
‘Just standing there, Debbie.’
‘Best to leave them be.’
She takes the parcel and turns to the living room. From the door, I see her piling it on top of the others. They’re all in a child’s playpen, the kind with the netted sides. Every few weeks it’s emptied and the parcel-stack begins again. I’ve no idea where they all go to. I’d like to say they’re gifted to charity, but I suspect they end up in landfill. They’re certainly never re-sent. Each parcel she sends has a brand-new toy inside. It’s Debbie McVeigh who keeps the toyshop in the village open. Same could probably be said for the post office, if we’re honest.
‘I’d invite you in for a cup of tea, Sam…’ she says.
‘I need to get on anyway.’
The invitation for a cup of tea is always framed this way, with an unspoken ‘but’ at the end. I know why. A year ago it would have been because she needed to get back to wee Elsie. Now, though, it’s because we’d have to avoid talking about her. About that morning. Debbie would have to keep herself from blaming me and, truth be told, I’d have to be careful of what I said to her too.
Back at the post office, Joan asks about my rounds. I tell her about the stags. She’s leaning on the counter with her head propped against her hand and her brown hair curling down. I wish she’d sit properly, wish she’d rest. Her forehead has a worry-line so deep it looks carved, but it’s not because she’s thinking of herself, of what’s impending.
‘You’d think she’d send a postcard or something,’ she says.
‘The daughter. What’s her name?’
I sigh. I should have known that Joan would spy the parcel in the bag that morning, that she’d be looking out for it. She’s intuitive, that one, and constantly flitter-flicking around for something to concern herself with.
‘Beth,’ I say. ‘Her name’s Beth.’
‘Maybe we could write a postcard from her, eh? Just say that Debbie should stop sending the parcels, save her money: ‘‘All is well, but we don’t need this.’’’
I smile. ‘The handwriting would be wrong.’
‘We could type it.’
‘Aye, or cut the letters out of a newspaper.’
Joan gives this pout and raises herself from the counter. A hand goes to her back. It’s quite a load she’s carrying now, seven months in, and she’s not sleeping the best either.
‘You just look after yourself,’ I say.
It’s three days later that the next parcel is sent and another three before I’m hauling it over to that side of the glen again. I think about what Joan suggested. Maybe there’s another approach. Perhaps I could just stop the van and throw the parcel into the fast-flow of the river. Or take it deep into the woods to be torn apart by the foxes.
‘Not my place,’ I say, instead, as I hand over the parcel. ‘But would it be worth pausing these parcels for a spell?’
Debbie looks at me for the longest moment. Her mascara is smeared. Looking away, I brace myself for a dressing-down.
‘Funny you should say that, Sam…’
She’s smiling now. Not the wisp of a thing she wears when she asks after Joan either, but one with her teeth showing.
‘… I’ve been thinking,’ she says. ‘And the problem is that I’ve been trying to buy my way back into her good books, right? It’s not heartfelt, it’s not got that personal touch.’
The smile gets wider. It’s unnerving. There’s a dead-tooth to the side that I’ve never noticed before. It’s her eyes that worry me most, though. They’ve got this glazed look to them that I remember from the year before.
It was a Wednesday morning. Back then, the McVeighs didn’t get much by way of mail and I’d often turn back after the MacNeils’ and hold the odd letter over for a day or two. That morning, though, there was a letter for Beth that looked official; the return address was down in London.
The stretch of road leading along to the old schoolhouse is a bonny one, single-track with a cow parsley fringe to the ditches. The mist often settles there, among the hills, but it’s rare that you’d meet anything coming the other way.
At the McVeigh house, I left the letter in the front porch. The door wasn’t locked, never is. I was about to be on my way when I heard a cry. The wail of a child from the living room. I called out ‘hello’ and chapped the inner door. Elsie answered with another cry.
I went in. Elsie was there in her playpen, on her stomach but stretching her neck muscles up to see me. She gave a screech and then her head flopped down.
‘Where’s your granny then, Elsie?’ I asked. ‘Anyone else with you?’
I scooped her up and she pushed at my chin, her sharp wee nails against my stubble. Together we walked through to the kitchen. Nobody there. Elsie blew me a raspberry and I called from the bottom of the stairs. Nothing.
I think about that morning, on the drive back to the village, and about all that’s changed this past year: Beth and Elsie leaving, Joan expecting, the Primary School closing down. There’s always a fair few cars on the road, heading for the ferry to the islands, but they’re only ever passing through.
Joan isn’t in her usual spot behind the counter. I feel a wince of irritation about that, because I could be a customer coming in to an empty shop, but it settles and I decide that I’m glad she’s resting. Then I hear the moan.
She’s on the floor behind the counter; on her side, with her hands curled around her belly. The look she gives me, eyes lifting to meet mine, is the look of someone just about to fall from the cliff edge, just realising they’re at the cliff edge. It jolts through me and I rush forward to grasp at her. And then I see the blood, on the tiles of the floor and on her hands.
‘I’m sorry, Sammy,’ she says.
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘We’ll get you to the hospital and you’ll be right as rain, you’ll see.’
The baby is ok, thank God, but Joan is fragile and they’re worried about the amount of blood lost and her ability to carry through to full term. They keep her in that night and I sleep in the armchair beside her. In the morning, they decide to keep her where she is until the baby comes.
Joan tells me to leave, to go back to the shop and my rounds. Who else will do it, she asks, and what will you do here? Fidget and fret, most likely. It could be weeks. For the sake of the baby, it’s maybe best that it is weeks.
So I mind the shop during the day and do my rounds in the evening. The locals, when they hear about Joan, start coming in to collect their mail instead. They bring tea loaves and flapjacks.
It’s a day or two before I see Debbie. When she does call in, she doesn’t bring any food or sympathy. In her hands, she has a parcel for Beth. It is roughly wrapped in brown paper, torn in places and with a stick poking out from the top of it.
‘What is it?’ I say.
‘None of this shop-bought tat,’ she says, proudly. ‘Homemade. My own fair hands.’
‘A doll for Elsie.’
She passes it over the counter and the paper crackles. The stick inside is criss-crossed with others. It reminds me of bird bones, beneath my fingers.
Debbie doesn’t ask after Joan and it’s maybe because of the absence of that question that I feel I can ask my own. Maybe it’s just the tiredness, the worry. Either way, I ask it.
‘Why did you leave her, Debbie?’
Debbie looks over at the sweeties on the shelf. There’s a sigh, but it’s not one of exasperation, just a deeper inhale-exhale.
‘I needed to, Sam,’ she says. ‘I don’t expect you to understand that, not yet, but I needed to remember the sound of the river and the sight of the starlings above the trees. I’d been inside with the wee one for three days—dark when Beth left in the morning, dark when she got back… I needed five minutes so I could last another hour, an hour so I could last the day. Just a break, Sam. So I stepped out.’
When she looks back at me, there are tears in her eyes. I nod and try a smile. I’d always imagined that the answer would be fuller, more dramatic, that there was some emergency—real or imagined—that had drawn her out of the house. She was at the end of her wick, though, that was all.
Before I leave for the hospital, I decide that I’m going to re-wrap Debbie’s parcel. There’s a practical reason, in that jutting sticks shouldn’t be sent through the mail, but I can’t deny that part of it is just curiosity.
The doll inside is little more than a collection of sticks. It is bound together with string and wears a skirt of glued leaves. The hair is moss and the smile is carved. It has acorn husks for eyes. It looks like something a witch might use for a curse or some prehistoric tribe might use as a totem.
I stand for a long time with the doll splayed out across a fresh sheet of brown paper. My instinct is to throw it into the river, to break it apart in the woods, but I resolve that I’ll show it to Joan and ask her what to do. She’ll know. So I drive to the hospital with the rough-hewn doll on the passenger seat next to me and carry it into the ward tucked in at the crook of my arm.
Joan is sleeping. Her hair is slick with sweat and her hand twitches on top of the covers. It isn’t a restful sleep and I imagine that I can see her belly roll and kick with the movement of our child. I can’t, though, it is only Joan who is stirring. And then I find myself fixating on where the hospital gown is stretched, watching for a shudder or a shift.
I pull over a plastic chair and sit there beside her. Debbie’s doll rests on my knee. I lift it and stare at its acorn-eyes. I move it towards Joan’s bed and then bring it close in to my chest. I breathe the smell of it: pine and moss, maybe the chemical sharpness of glue. I hold it there and let my eyes close. I wonder if this is the closest I’ll ever get to prayer.
Liam Murray Bell is author of two novels, So It Is and The Busker, both published by Myriad Editions. He lives in Stirling, Scotland. More at www.liammurraybell.com.