Fiona Perry is an Irish writer living in Western Australia. She has had two stories shortlisted in the national Morrison Mentoring Short Story Competition which were included in the anthologies- ‘Glint: Award Winning Original Australian Short Stories’ and ‘Flourish: Award Winning Original Australian Short Stories’. Fiona is an Alice Munro superfan as well as admiring the short fiction of Somerset Maugham, James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield.
Real and Imagined Danger
By Fiona Perry
The boy emerges from a den assembled from salvaged wood and a large sheet of cheerfully patterned linoleum. The local children have made a macabre playground of the bomb sitealready.
He ignores me as he stumbles across the rubble, hands in pockets.
`Hi wee lad, have you seen a black shoe box with some holy bits and pieces in it?’ I shout in his direction.
`Fuck away aff missus, I didn’t touch nothin’ of yours.’ He wipes his nose with the back of his hand and runs expertly over the jagged surface of collapsed houses and shops. I am fit to be tied. I have an urge to throw half a brick to scare him but then it occurs to me that he might have already been thumped for looting. Either way, he looks as if he has been crying so I leave him alone.
I pull back my hair and lick my lips in preparation to start sifting again. I can taste sweat and dust. I am swallowing miniscule bits of my shop and home.
After an hour or so, I stop to check on Eamon, sleeping sweetly in his Silvercrosspram with the blue and white blanket my mother croqueted especially for him. When I stand up and look around, I cannot quite fathom what I am seeing. I know that I am standing on my street so my mind keeps searching for familiar shop fronts and house facades but there is no satisfaction, just a strange sort of nothingness. It is a bit like when you have a tooth taken outand you search for it with your tongue for days afterwards.
Everyone expects me to cry, they want me to be hysterical; to give them the opportunity to comfort and cajole. Crying seems impossible. I have a sensation of detachment from my body as if I am shadowing it. I am almost grateful for the waves of gnawing, burning pain in my stomach. The discomfort acts as an anchor. This pain is also a signal, a reminder of everything I must face when I have finished this job. I want to keep it there, distilled and trapped, for as long as possible.
It has been two days since the bomb exploded. Others have come before me and done their neighbourly duty by lifting out all the heavy furniture and placing it in one accessible pile near the road. Wardrobes, chests of drawers and assorted tables, even a mangled piano with the front blown off, exposing its spindly innards. I have already recognised and searched our bedroom wardrobe finding nothing but a few wooden hangers. I avoided looking at the exterior too closely, fearing I might see my husband Teddy’s blood. The blast sent the wardrobe and part of our bedroom wall hurtling towards him, crushing his legs and pinning him in a shell of a building until the ambulances arrived.
Gangrene. Fast spreading, potentially fatal. Shortly after the diagnosis was given,Teddy whispered hoarsely in my ear, ‘Find Ma’s relic’. The relic is a large medallion encasing a piece of fabric which had touched Padre Pio’s glove. I have a vague recollection of Imelda, reverend and serious, lifting it out of a shoe box once and unwrapping the surrounding tissue paper for me to have a look at it. Just a look. I wasn’t allowed to touch.
Imelda was very particular. My mother was amazed when she gave me a job in her shop. Mother said of Imelda, ‘That woman doesn’t talk to you, she talks at you. Why would I want to know what she ate on her honeymoon in Sorrento twenty five years ago? There’s nothing but white mice running around in that head.’
I excelled in school but against all advice, I tramped the streets when I turned sixteen, in and out of shops all over town, asking for work. I reasoned that nice outfits and nights out didn’t pay for themselves. My older boyfriend Micky was unpredictable on the cash front, better to earn some of my own.
Imelda was wearing a sharply pressed shop coat and tidying the shelves behind the counter when I walked in.
‘Hello, do you have any work?’ I asked, holding my head upright stiffly because it wobbled when I was nervous. Imelda walked towards me, staring hard.
‘Maggie’s daughter? What’s your name?’
‘Sadie, you are the spit of your Auntie Patricia. I was a friend of your Auntie Patricia’s you know. She was spoilt rotten that one. We went on a holiday to the seaside when we were girls. She had the days of the week embroidered on her knickers. Embroidered on her knickers! Your granny did it for her.’
She gave a little helpless laugh before patting her hairdo a couple of times.
Then she tucked a wisp of my hair behind my ear. Her hand was very soft and smelt of Atrixo hand cream.
‘Patricia was a lovely girl but delicate. Your ones are delicate.’
She said this in the thoughtless manner in which older people sometimes speak to the young. ‘Delicate’ was the old people’s way of saying ‘destined to die young’ as a result of aphysical frailty. Our family weakness was a heart defect. My granny and two aunts had succumbed.
‘I do need a bit of help in the shop actually. My son Teddy is always very busy looking after our properties around town and doing the Cash and Carry. You will need to be here at eight in the morning. I will find you a shop coat. Wear your hair tied back and keep your nails short. We will talk about the rest tomorrow.’
My back is becoming stiff. My father has already looked through and taken most of our belongings back to his house while I was at the hospital visiting Teddy. His wheel barrow waits on the road for the last vestiges, but apart from finding some cutlery I am not having much luck. I feel oppressed by the distinctive bomb site odour. The claggy smell of damp plaster that sticks to the back of my throat. I stretch my lower back and walk over to the children’s den.
I peel back the linoleum to reveal a child’s glittering version of a posh tea party. Two upturned milk crates have been placed together and covered in a curtain to form a table which is laden with two place settings comprised of mismatched teapots, saucers, side plates, cups; big, small and doll-house sized. The central table piece is a Belleek china vase filled with butterfly-bush plumes and dandelions. On stacks of books acting as chairs is a scorched Tiny Tears doll enjoying a cuppa with a one-legged teddy bear.
I search through a child’s suitcase of magpie-hoarded objects; badges, plastic costume jewellery. No relic.
Imelda had her hair washed and set into a queenly dove-grey helmet early on a Saturday morning while I looked after the shop. Even taking into account her severe coiffure she could never be described as matronly, her diminutive stature gave the impression of a young girl masquerading as an old lady. She had bird bones, so petite that I felt Amazonian standing beside her. Later on a Saturday she would also allow herself a spritz of Miss Dior after closing up. Imelda forbade perfume in the shop during the week she said that the customers didn’t like it. There was something expensive, self-assured and matriarchal about her fragrance and, strangely, a suggestion of faded sexiness.
I had been working in the shop for about four weeks when she invited me upstairs for Saturday night tea. The rooms above the shop were sumptuous compared to the small functional terraced house that I lived in with my destructive, rampaging six siblings. I found the first tea ritual intensely awkward, it was so quiet and civilised. I was used to grabbing tea in a mug and bolting it down. As I sat at the dining table, I could hear Imelda humming in the kitchen as the sound of the radio blended with the jingle-jangle of crockery and cutlery being arranged on a tray.
Light from a little lamp flooded over two photographs in silver frames on the sideboard. One was of a cherubic baby Teddy on a blanket surrounded by green grass. The second was a wedding photo of a grinning, radiant Imelda and her late husband.
‘That’s a lovely photo Imelda,’ I said when she entered the dining room. My voice didn’t sound like my own, I was almost imitating Imelda’s gentle tones.
`Never marry beneath yourself Sadie, it doesn’t work out,’ she said, as she put down the tray, took a small sharp breath and asked if I would like a slice of Jamaican ginger cake.
The next day my dad came into the shop as he did on the way home from work and bought a packet of cigarettes. When I handed them to him he looked around the shop. Oncehe was certain no-one was loitering he said:
‘That Micky Carville is a bad rip. You don’t know the half of what I’ve heard about him. You’d have no life with him.’
The confrontation was so unexpected that I could feel my entire body blush. Then I started to search for the path of least resistance. I was desperate to rid myself of the discomfort.
And I meant it. No matter how difficult it would prove to be. I knew that I would finish it the next chance I got.
After that I set my sights on Teddy. As my old science teacher was fond of saying, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. I couldn’t stand not having a boy to day dream about.
My burgeoning feelings for Teddy were encouraged by the fact that Imelda had a compulsion to make announcements about him; `My Teddy could have been anything he wanted to be. He was so smart in school but chose to be in the family business after his father died’. Another time she said, `Teddy is a potato person. He loves his spuds. They have to be mashed. With a big knob of butter.’ I spat Fanta out laughing at that one.
Her devotion to him was infectious.
He wasn’t a talker but he did have an angelic, all-knowing stare. His gaze alone generated such heat and longing between my legs. When he looked at me I felt as as if I was somehow fascinating… even when I was re-arranging boxes of Bird’s Custard or cleaning out the cold meat slicing machine.
It was also heartening to know how good Teddy was to his Mammy. Very respectful, he went to Mass every Sunday and on the way back from Communion he would shadow his mother protectively. Imelda always wore a Mantilla and a theatrical, pious expression.
We had been courting for two years when Teddy bought me a lovely camel-colouredwool winter coat for Christmas and asked me to check the pocket. Inside was an enormous diamond engagement ring from Lunn’s. My dad always said the same thing when I visited my parents wearing that coat. He would open the front door to me and shout into the house, ‘There’s a hoity toity lady at the door with a big sparkler on her finger, she must be lost,’ and then laugh at his own joke. My parents were beyond themselves with pride that their daughter was being looked after so well. Even my mother softened towards Imelda and patiently listened to her stories without comment or criticism.
As I continue to sift, I am startled by a curious mongrel dog that has crept up behind me. It looks at me quizzically for a few seconds and then pads off in the direction of the children’s den. He sniffs the base of the perimeter before cocking his leg and urinating confidently up one side of the linoleum. Nothing is sacred in this street any longer. Homes have been desecrated.
The sky is the blue-tinged white of skimmed milk, the cloud cover is thick and complete, lending the day a wintery quality as if it is about to snow even though it is only August.
I feel a hot jolt of pain in my stomach as I try to repel a string of repetitive mental images of the wardrobe falling towards Teddy. Involuntarily, I imagine the sound of bones crushing and the smell of putrefying flesh. ‘Search, search’, I tell myself. ‘This will end when you find the relic.’
One Saturday morning everything changed. Imelda died outside the hairdressers of a massiveheart attack (her death was as efficient as her life) and even in the midst of my terrible sadness, the scales fell from my eyes. It was as if I couldn’t love Teddy anymore because Imelda was no longer around to convince me of his goodness. It became obvious that the gaze I once found so seductive wasn’t mystical or filled with desire but merely a symptom of his stupidity and drunkenness. I suspect in those early days, he hadn’t even been looking at me half the time, I just happened to be there when he was staring into the alcoholic middle distance. Desperate for help, I tried to show him how to do things in the shop. Even the simplest instructions flummoxed him. He would look at me as if I had spoken in a foreign language or had asked him to solve a complex equation. How had he managed all these yearsto look after properties and do wholesale runs? The truth was that he did very little of that– most of his time was spent getting plastered in a pub far enough away not to upset Imelda and visiting the bookies. After Imelda died, he made no effort to conceal or control the drinking. He seemed to jump into an abyss, leaving Eamon and I at the edge, watching. He even told me once during an argument that Imelda had paid him every single time he went to Mass with her.
My mind was a merry-go round of hateful thoughts and revelations: Imelda youschemer. You told me I was the daughter you never had. A filthy lie. I was only ever a good-enough daughter-in-law, a naïve compromise. No self-respecting, adult woman would have had Teddy so you dangled him under MY nose! I cried at how easily I had been turned by a nice coat and a diamond ring. These thoughts became trapped in my head because I had nowhere to put them. Imelda was dead, they met a brick wall.
In a gathering swell of panic I confided in my mother who listened with an inscrutableexpression and pronounced, ‘Marriage is a Sacrament; you weren’t forced to marry Teddy. You have made your bed Sadie.’ Then just for good measure she called me an ingrate.
The intrusive mental image of the relentlessly falling wardrobe takes a new startling twist. Eamon and I are now trapped underneath, lungs expelled of air, flat as specimens in a flower press, extinct. A sudden wave of nausea causes me to throw up the sugary tea my mother made for me this morning when I refused breakfast.
I hear a crunching sound and look up to see an old lady in a thick coat and headscarf walk towards me. I am anticipating false, theatrical sympathy and a barrage of questions butas she approaches I can see that her eyes look glazed and she is carrying a black book.
`Look at this destruction,’ she says as she indicates our surroundings with a sweep of a weary arm. I notice that tears are slowly navigating the deep wrinkles on her cheeks. `Shall I tell you why this terrible thing has happened?’ I decide that withdrawing eye contact and carrying on with my work is the best course of action. `Sin! Sin! The unrighteous will not enter the kingdom of God. Be not deceived! Neither fornicators or adulterers nor drunkards or idolaters…’
When Micky reappeared in town after a stint away, I let him do all the things that I refused the first time around. Partly because I was so angry with Teddy and Imelda, but also becauseI was drowning in loneliness. Micky didn’t love me but at least he made me feel like I existed, at best I was invisible to Teddy.
That is not to say that I didn’t have occasional flashes of conscience. In fact I said to him a few evenings ago that we would go to hell for committing adultery with Teddy’s baby in the room. He shrugged and said, “We are going to hell anyway.’’
Then as he was pulling up and fastening his jeans he asked:
‘Is the shop insured?’
`Make sure you are not in the shop tomorrow morning between 10:00 and 12:00.’
`I can’t just shut up shop Micky. I am the only one running it.’
`Shut up shop. Say you think the baby has croup, sit in Dr O’Neill’s waiting room and tell them you need an appointment. After you see the doctor, take the baby for a walk in the direction of the park. You want to get him some fresh air.’
He never used Eamon’s name, only ever referring to him as ‘the baby’.
‘Micky, what are you going on about? Eamon doesn’t have croup.’
‘Do you know who meets above McDade’s pub?’
I nodded. I have seen the burly men with Loyalist tattoos entering the building opposite our shop every Wednesday morning.
‘God, no, you are not planting it?’
‘Don’t say anything to anyone. If you do, they will know it came from me. The nutting squad will have us both as informers.’
He cupped my chin with his long-fingered hand. The hand that made bombs. Hecontinued.
‘You will be alright. You will get money for the shop to be fixed up. There will be a fifteen minute warning to the police anyway. Everyone will get out. No intention to kill, this one is just scare tactics. I just want to make sure you and your baby are safe.’
‘Micky I wish you hadn’t told me. Those warnings are fucking useless, people mightbe killed. Jesus Christ Almighty!’
Cash, jewellery and documents in a biscuit tin. Family photo albums in a plastic bag. All of which I placed in the bottom of the pram. These small items are all I that I allowedmyself because moving bulky belongings would make people suspicious. I hid these things under my old bed in my parents’ house. Why didn’t I warn Teddy? Was I hoping he would die?
The old lady wanders off talking to herself shortly before Eamon stirs in his pram. His crying becomes progressively louder. His little fists are clenched and he is moving his legs mechanically in a breast stroke kick. Little frog legs. I love to see the tiny razor-sharp milk teeth on his lower gum line when he opens his mouth wide like a baby bird. His face is afurious scrunched-up pink. I pick him up, I am glad for the cuddle.
`Aw wee man, my wee man. What is all that fuss about? Did that silly, shoutie lady wake you? Squishy man, man in the moon.’
My fingertips are sticking to his blanket. I realise they are ragged and bloody from digging. Wool fibres have come away from the blanket and attached to the raw skin.
I try to stem the flow of new excruciating thoughts by shaking my head. I am wincingand trying to gather breath as I recall Teddy telling me from his hospital bed that he had been to an AA meeting for the very first time the night before the explosion. That Eamon and I were everything to him. That he had been a fool because he of all people should have known what love and sacrifice were because Imelda had shown him his whole life. He had whispered all of these things in an urgent outpouring as the nurses prepared him for theatre.
A massive explosion, like the one that occurred in our street, can be heard for miles around. I heard it whilst wheeling Eamon around the duck pond in the park. His startle reflex caused him to outstretch his arms as if he was falling. Birds roosting in the trees fled in a flurry of squawks while those feeding in the water remained floating. The sound radiates in all directions. It feels like an inescapable dark wave travelling at colossal speed towards you. But the scariest part isn’t the noise, it is the first few moments of relative silence afterwards. Your mind is frantically attempting to make sense of what it has just heard and wondering what is to come next.
I place Eamon back in his pram despite the fact he is still crying. I have to start searching again. The relic is here, it can’t be anywhere else.