Woman at the Door

Life’s pictures flicker around me as I linger outside the weather-beaten door. A crow perches on a branch of the skeleton ash on the lawn and a hearse stands in the lane. Bodies hide under a roof of umbrellas. I recognise some, even though years of humanity have battered them. It’s not peculiar that they don’t acknowledge me. They give their condolences to my sister, Margaret. I lost Jamie a long time ago. She’s only losing him now.

The last time I stood outside her door, Jamie looked at me through eight-year-old eyes and rubbed buttery crumbs from the corners of his mouth. I wanted to scoop him into my arms and rest my nose on the back of his neck.

“Mammy, there’s a woman at the door.”  Margaret ran from the kitchen. “Go away, Catherine.” Her green eyes cut through me as she pushed Jamie behind her. She stood with arms folded, filling the space between the door frame with her body.  “But I’ve come all this way…” She leaned towards me and whispered: “He doesn’t know you. You’ll only upset him. If you love him, go.”

Today turf smoke sends grey streaks across the Mayo sky.  A pitchfork leans against the wall, looking as cold as the men who stand beside it. They shove their hands into pockets of dark overcoats as their wives move closer. I remember a day when I shivered as I stood in this yard. Dad’s fingers had clinched my five-year-old hand as Mam’s body lay in the hearse. Margaret grabbed my other arm and whispered into my ear:“You have to stop acting like a baby and grow up.”

When I did grow up she still wasn’t satisfied. “Time enough for boyfriends when you’ve your exams done,” she said, when she found out about Seamus. And then when he’d arrive at the back door: “Come in, great to see you. Catherine’s just finishing her homework.”

She’d keep him talking and stuffing him with her homemade sponge cake that always seemed to be ‘just coming out of the oven’ whenever he showed up. “Sure what could I do? I couldn’t go insulting her by not having the tea and her sponge is even nicer than me mam’s and she won first prize last year in the county fair,” he’d say when I gave out to him for spending too much time in the kitchen with her.

Then one Saturday, she walked into the bathroom as I sat on the toilet seat reading the instructions on a pregnancy kit box. She glared at the shaking stick in my hand, at my pale face, then at the stick again. “Can I not go to the toilet in peace?” I said, as I pulled up my jeans. She grabbed the stick, started at it, then broke it in half. “We only did it once. He spends more time with you than he does with me these days,” I said. She looked into the mirror over the sink, dragged a belligerent hair behind her ear and twisted her pursed lips into a smile.“Yes, he does.”

“It’ll be a shock for him, and his mother will go mad but once the baby’s born she’ll soften,” I said.

She turned to look at me. “We hadn’t planned on telling you until after your exams. Seamus and I are getting married though it’ll have to be a bit sooner than we planned,” she said. The skin on my forehead tightened and my stomach cramped as I tried to absorb what she’d said. Later, we sat around the kitchen table. Her hand gripped Seamus’s until his knuckles whitened. He cradled his sweating forehead with his other hand. Dad had disappeared to the pub to bury his head in a pint of blackness. “It’s the perfect solution; as far as anyone’s concerned the baby’s mine. Premature. And you’ve just put on a bit of weight,” she said.

"You can’t take my -.”

“Dad couldn’t bear the shame of having a single mother in the house. We’ll give you some money to go to London. You can start a new life there.”

“Not without my baby,” I said.

“You won’t be able to look after it. What will happen if you get sick or worse, die like Mam?”

“You could be the one that gets sick.”

She pushed her chair back, stood up and leaned across the table.“What about the little turns you get? You’ve always been the frail one. You wouldn’t want your child to end up an orphan. We can’t let that happen.”

“Seamus,” I said, hoping my quivering voice would bring his hand towards mine.

“Catherine.” Margaret cut across him. “He loves me.”

The years in London passed in a heartbeat as I pottered through life, losing myself in its routine; in the minutiae that I hoped would kill the feelings in my heart. Did I forget Jamie the way I started to forget other things? No. Last summer the consultant explained my forgetfulness and clumsiness. When I arrived home from hospital, I googled “Huntington’s Disease.” The chances of ever seeing my son faded as I read. Then a month ago - I left my relentless thirst for him - on a bridge over the Thames.

Margaret doesn’t stop me today. She’s a crumpled sword encased in black tweed. Tears cut through her porcelain foundation as she shakes hands with the neighbours. Dad’s in the kitchen in his armchair beside the Aga. Although blinded by age, his head moves as if to look for something, as I pass by. I’m drawn upstairs to my old bedroom. Jamie’s laptop sits on a desk in the corner where my eighties shrine to Wham once stood. He floats over his bed, unwilling to break the chord that ties him to his body.  “I’m here, son, to bring you home.”

“I can’t leave, she made me promise never-”

“You have to - they’re coming to take your body.”


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