Nine Days: Modes of Distraction

An excerpt from Deirdre Shanahan’s Carrying Fire and Water

This story is excerpted from
Deirdre Shanahan’s
Carrying Fire and Water,
available for pre-order now.

Ever since we left Coxsackie, we’d held to a tacit agreement not to talk about Rory. So I sat at the window, twisting for a better view of roofs and chimneys stretching across the sky and tried to sketch them. Blue merged to purple in the evening. Hunched at the end of the bed, I leant forward to delineate gardens which were tiny and packed in. A web, or warren, of green hedges. Our garden was tangled with dried grasses and red hot pokers clawing each other. My neck ached but in the distance the Wicklow Hills made a line of grey haze. In the street below, a man with a long ponytail pulled a shopping bag on wheels and two girls in short dresses clumped down the footpath.

In a new place I would have a studio like my old one, a garden of light flooding in, shelves for paints, canvases, brushes. I would work with the fury I used to have.

The pad’s sheer whiteness, a hard purity like snow. Heavy falls lay around the house that February. Hills were crisp-topped and a cold wolf of wind nosed down the valley. White light teemed as Rory, snug as an airman, clutched my hand and we ventured out. He attempted to run, hobbling. Fell and sat like a fat alderman, declaring in a serious voice how he was tired. He scrambled up, spreading out his arms for support. We walked towards the lake. In the confusion of moving, it was possible some days to believe Rory had tucked his two-year-old self among pots and pans in the kitchen cupboard. Dry air sank in my throat.

Colm pushed open the bedroom door.

I’m back, he said as he sat on the bed. You’re sickening for something. What are these? He pulled out the shiny packs, each label proclaiming: 0-3 months. Who are they for?

His face shadowed with puzzlement, eyebrows down, drawn together like a pair of caterpillars. The book with holes in the pages. How Rory had loved it and laughed. Holes through which singular sights were revealed. The fruit. The sun. The butterfly.

Silence fell into the hollowmost parts of me. Walls closed in on us. The dressing table and drawers.

I thought they’d be useful, I said.

We don’t know anyone with a baby.

The sister of the girl in the next flat has three under five.

Is her sister here?

She lives in a village outside Kraków.

I lay the packs of baby-gros in the bottom drawer of the dressing table, the way babies were laid in poor families, years back. One outfit to wear. One in the wash and one spare.

Get shot of them or you’ll be more upset.

He sighed.

Look, he said, don’t you think we might try again? His arms, folded, drew me to the sofa. We have so much to give a child. And each other. He reached for my hand and held it in both of his and said, I wish things were as they were before. But we mustn’t let what happened be an impediment.

Themirror caught my cheeks messed with tears, strands of hair awry. Loss stretched across my face in a thin, taut veil.

I’ll return them, he said. Next time you’re out, buy yourself something. You’ll feel better.

He bundled the packages in his arms, smoothing out creases. Hebent over and kissed me atop the head, picked up his backpack and went. He slammed shut the front door.

I was not myself or any of the selves I had been. I pulled on a jacket, eager for air, and left. The next couple of days I wandered the network of tightly packed terraces with backyards so narrow it was a wonder washing lines could be strung across them. In a square, neat houses were hushed behind gardens with iron railings, but walking past they did not seem so cramped; rather they were tended to, cared for. A pale blue house at one end, with a flourish of tall flowers, looked peaceful and English. An expensive restaurant had opened. A Volvo garage swamped the corner and a florist had a vase of lavish, long-stemmed grasses in the window. Unprepared for so many changes, I had wanted Dun Laoghaire to be the same, to remind me of who I was, but it had changed in the years since I had gone. At the corner, two houses were being converted into a home for difficult children. Colm had called it a waste of the corporation’s money but I liked the landscaping of the garden with low hedges and large glass doors.

I had wanted to live in the country after returning but Colm said he had to be near the university. I clicked on estate agents’ websites. Red brick. Bay windows. Dormers. Other people’s lives.

Greystone Victorian terraces rose up, leading to an unfamiliar street of stark new houses and a block of flats. Cries came from a playground opposite. Usually I hurried, as though any minute Rory would waddle towards me. A girl in leggings and a pink T-shirt pushed a swing with her child in the boxy seat. Buggies crammed near the gate. The only accessory. The girl lit a cigarette, letting the swing go nonchalantly to and fro. The baby looked up, fat-cheeked and blooming. I could have swooped him into my arms, nuzzled him. The girl stubbed out her cigarette with her foot and hurried off. I wended away, past small houses backing onto one another until reaching the seafront, the sky opening up, a lighter grey and the wind squally and hard with its salty smell.

Boats clustered in the quay while plump gulls breasted the waves. Far out, a smudged pink sky was reflected in the water. Not like the sea of my childhood which flung waves madly at the shore. Rude and rough on winter nights, smooth and sheeny as glass in summer.

The path led along the cliff edge to the beach and the harbour. Wind tangled my hair and a boat far out had a red sail. Always someone sailing.

The main street had independent shops, like those in Coxsackie, where if I bought something, instead of online, I felt virtuous. A picture framer. A potter. Three cafés and two restaurants. A craft shop and several clothing boutiques. Belle Isle, I read above one shop with light summery tops and dresses in the window. Out of the sun, the shop was cool, discreet, but the clothes were colourful. Several orange and red dresses in light fabric hung on one rail. Another had tumbling dresses with ruffles and tiers.

A girl with short dark hair appeared beside me and asked if she could help.

Chiffon drifted under my fingers. I said, May I try this on?

In the changing room, the dress was a streak of light. As I turned side to side in the mirror it flashed and dazzled. Sleeveless with the armholes cut in, leaving my shoulders bare, it made me look boyish. Ethereal. Sophisticated. Grown up.

I pushed back the curtain. I’ll take it, I said.

The girl smiled. It looks great.

I may as well wear it home.

Sure. I’ll put your clothes in the bag instead.

I was lighter. Replenished. Filled with radiance. Birds called in the trees and traffic hummed. A line from a prayer of my mother’s came to me: This is today and we must praise it spilling its contents at our feet. I had not understood at only seven years.

A shower filled the air. The red of the traffic lights was the same as those on the back of a car. Trees were dipped at the edges with light, from pale green to almost lemon. Nothing was staying the same. The clear day was sucked away as a leaden sky pressed down and unleashed rain. I should have taken an umbrella. The roads were liquorice strips. Hurrying, I reached a church on a corner and the heavy door fell open.

Velvet shadows. Light filtered through stained glass. A sulky angel in one window stood beside another in robes of whorish reds and purples. Lines of lead around the sections held in the colours. They glowed, alchemies of changing tones. Glass might be good to work with. Colours set, so they did not run.

I held a candle, an intense blue at the core while a flame curled around the outside as pale as the alb my brother had worn as an altar boy, supplicating himself at Easter. He had flown down, a bird in a little wind through the bleakness of Good Friday with the telling of what the soldiers did. The words of Pilate echoed: What I have written, I have written. Life was like this. What was done, was done. And the continual question resounded. Was Rory in heaven with saints and angels, with my grandmother who had walked miles to Mass? Or perhaps mouldering in the ground, chewed by worms and slugs? I had to believe he was in a safe place, even though Colmhad given up on the proprieties of religion years ago, saying they had no logical foundation. Though rationally agreeing, I clung to a few tenets of faith, for belief beyond the confines of the tiny white coffin.

Excuse me?

A tall priest, his face unlined like a schoolboy’s, smiled. Priests were strange creatures, seeming one thing and being another. Mercurial.

Are you here for the bazaar raffle? You wouldn’t be Mrs. Fitzgerald? He shifted foot to foot and I wanted to leave. She’s to meet me to give over the money raised, he said, but I’m new and haven’t met all the parishioners.

I shook my head. Sorry. I came in out of the rain. Limp wet hair obscured my eyes.

Well, he said with a smile, we may as well use the roof over our heads.

A door at the back of the church scraped open. Straggling through was a fat, middle-aged woman with a soft hat and, hanging from the crook of an arm, a big shopping bag displaying the design of an assortment of flowers and the priest slipped off to greet her.

I like bad weather. Droplets trickled down my neck through rats’ tails of hair. I needed a cut, but couldn’t remember the name of the girl who had done it last. At the bookshop on the corner, I grabbed the slippery door handle and tumbled into the warm premises.

Hiding amongst the shelves, I turned to photography books propped open. Except one. The cover. It chilled the insides of my bones. Him. Luke. He had slipped out of my consciousness. Behind the lettering, across the cover, were the gnarled backs of mountains and rivers and streams which ran over rocks riddled with gorse. I picked up the book, slipped through the pages of the outside world. Seas raged under the glossy texture as though under glass. A graze of green fields glowed from a height. One photograph showed a boat, with its worn, ruined wood taking up most of the frame. Here was the Moy, where Vivien Leigh’s father had fished for salmon; there, the lake where Cúchulainn’s sword had fallen. A wide lens shot captured a row of severe peaks. Bare trees on a scraw hill, flecked with snow, electrified with distress. The land was scrubby, pure sparseness. Rivers and hills were sharply framed. Precipitous rocks ranged a scrabbled trail down sharp cliffs, where the only alternative was the gaping, charging sea as birds darted and gulls dived for food. Otherwise, beyond creatures of the deep, no other living thing survived.

As a kind of companion, for night, I bought the book. A reflection in the door met me on leaving. Ragged hair. It did not matter. Nothing did, for the bag with the book hung and swung with my movements. The book, trapped. His words caught. On the pavement a sign said breakfast all day. I did not know how this could be. But of course it was possible even as threads of time were out of kilter, slipping sideways.

Abba blasted from a retro TV show when I came in. Colm rose and placed his laptop on the kitchen table. You didn’t take your phone, he said. His eyes, dark, flayed. The whole of the afternoon had fallen away behind us. The clock said twenty past six. Colm murmured, I thought I’d come home early. I got a good bottle of wine. He brandished the bottle with a particularly delicate label of pinks and blues.

Home? Where was this?

But you clearly forgot to buy the fish, Colm added. He held the fridge door open.

I’m sure there’s food, I said. I reached for a cupboard andglanced along the kitchen counter, as though to miraculously encounter a haddock or plaice, pure white flesh glistening on a plate.

Oh, he said, there’s food, but the trouble is it’s not cooked. I’d better go around the corner and get a takeaway. Chicken chow mein?

He didn’t wait for an answer and I wanted to run out after him, calling, It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. But gravity grabbed my ankles and I sank to the sofa.

When he came back, he laid the packages of rice and chicken on the kitchen counter and we divided the dishes. We sat to eat while rain spattered the windows which misted with the heat of our breathing.

Luke’s voice bled in, descriptions of streams and mountains. The confluence of paths over rough stones weathered with moss and lichen.He brought back how he had lived. Amongst woods. Along streams, at the edges of the sea. He had disturbed my heart more than a decade before. We had driven to Dingle, slept on a beach for a week in August, his head resting on my belly, days and night bleeding together. We drove one rainy morning to the magnificence of the Cliffs of Moher. I had been alarmed, bracing against a biting wind. While rain lashed us both he stood in awe of the elements. He had been easy to be with. Or mostly. His years over mine were a type of hold. He used to ring late at night, saying he was calling round, and I acceded to him and the long mornings.

Restless to be outdoors, he had sought the open air and we had walked miles in full winds, jackets making us fat, our mouths seeking one another’s. He opened up the outer world, explaining how features derived from phenomena. A glacial valley: its steep sides fell in a drop to a floor as wide as a palace ballroom.

You there? Colm called through the bedroom door and thumped down his bag. I flipped shut the book and shoved it under the bed. You remembered flowers for the party, he said. But they’ll have cost a bomb. Delphiniums, carnations, and lilies stretched their heads. And you’ve used the bucket.

We’re short of vases, I said. But aren’t they lovely?

The vase on the mantelpiece held a clutch of creamy orchids. Shadows of stark green stippled over. I breathed in. Summers. My parents’ garden had been vibrant with lupins, foxgloves. Dizzying scents.

You’ve lots of friends here, I said.

Exactly. You need to meet people. If you saw a doctor, he could give you something. Help you get out of yourself.

He’d cut his ginger hair so short, the vibrancy of his curls was gone. A vase of fiery peonies glowed behind him. He was right. The flat was overstuffed. The confusion of our accumulated possessions stacked and toppled in every room. Fragile towers of art materials, table lamps, chairs from the front porch, rugs made by craftspeople we’d known. The sediment and debris of a shared life on another continent. The olive eyes of the Argentinian psychotherapist had pierced me. He was a tiny man whose long arms and lithe movements reminded me of a lizard. I did not want to talk to a stranger. Talking made the loss expand inside, so I was larger with the weight of expectation, the expectation of things improving. And dashed when they did not.

Colm leant in close to stroke my hair.

Soon you’ll get back to painting, he said. In a routine. It won’t be like last time.

Last time was the last time with Rory. For all time. And it was my fault. His flighty blonde hair in the lake under the crack of glassy ice. A man had gone out in a boat. Too late. Always too late. Rory lay on the ground, cheeks murky and softened with earth. Soils spilt from his mouth and his eyes were closed. Blue as petals. Cornflowers. His face was pale, delicate, with fine veins of lavender. At the side of his head, blood trickled from the impact of a rock. Gritty texture had imprinted his skin. I had clutched him, unable to fathom why having borne him I could not now give him new life.

The dark tones of the kitchen counter and the metallic fridge were like my uncle’s butcher shop: cabinets big enough to walk into and flashes of chunky red flesh hanging from hooks, thick with blood and melting white tissue. The radio forecast hot weather. Spanish weather, my father had called it, though he had never been to Spain. Never even fifty miles from the farm. He must have been thinking of the phrase from the song:

First she washed them, then she dried them
Over a fire of amber coals
In all my life I ne’er did see
A maid so sweet about the soul...

A sole? A person’ s foot. Or their soul? The lady’s or someone else’s? It would have been unusual for my father to sing words riven with confusion, for he was level-headed, practical, with skills of carpentry. A man who knew his own business, making tables and dressers and mending everything: a lopsided chair, the runner for a drawer. He made things new. If only I could put on a new skin, start life over again. Wasn’t this meant to happen every seven years? All I had to do was wait to become a new person.

About Deirdre Shanahan

Deirdre Shanahan has published stories in several journals including The Southern Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Lonely Crowd. Her work was included in The Best of British Short Stories 2017 from Salt and, in 2018, she won the Wasafiri International Fiction Award. She is also the recipient of an Arts Council England award for her writing. Her first novel, Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind, was published by Bluemoose Books in 2019.