Doreen Duffy studied creative writing and poetry at Oxford online, UCD & NUIM. Published internationally, she won The Jonathan Swift Award and was presented with The Deirdre Purcell Cup at Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival. Shortlisted in Francis MacManus Competition 2017, her story ‘Tattoo’ was broadcast on RTE Radio One. She is studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at DCU.
‘Is today Tuesday’
By Doreen Duffy
From where I’m sitting in the kitchen I can see through the window beside the front door, to where the long thorny stems tear through the wire fence, each one grappling to get to the light. A wintry sun traces a map along the veins in the leaves; pale buds reach towards any possible warmth. I’d put on my best suit, grey pinstripe; Kay always liked this suit on me. Stretching my neck, I pull at the knot in my tie a little to make it easier to breathe. I look at the backs of my hands; the skin sags. I place one on top of Kay’s, ‘I love you Kay, you know that don’t you?’ she smiles a tiny faraway smile.
‘What day is today, is today Tuesday?’ she says tugging at a grey curl behind her ear.
‘No, it’s Friday.’ I tell her again.
I don’t remember if those stems were there when we were young or if they were planted after Kay’s father died.
The sink is still full of dirty dishes. I’ll have to get to them now, make the place look right before he gets here. Kay is still eating though and I don’t want to rush her, I don’t want to make her feel unsettled. I’m unsettled enough for both of us. I cut another small piece of toast and she watches me or at least, she looks like she’s watching me, as I smear jam across it. The sound of the knife scraping against the crusty bread is repetitive. I hand her the piece of toast and she eats it, as though it’s the first, even though this must be her third, maybe fourth slice. Soon I’ll have to call a halt to breakfast and try to explain to her again what’s happening this morning.
I can’t quite believe it myself. Very soon he’s going to walk up that path, past the wire fence and the long stems and I will see him, for the first time, ‘our son.’ As I lay in bed last night while sleep eluded me, I practiced saying that quietly to myself, listening to see if the words rolled off my tongue after all this time. Could I talk about him to people I’d meet, casually tell things about him, about ‘our son’. I have to keep telling myself that he’s a man now not a boy; he’s fifty three years old. All the time we spent looking for him I think in my head I was looking for a little boy. I don’t know why but I couldn’t see him as a man in my mind.
I pick up Kay’s handbag and open it, I take out a tissue and wipe the jam that’s dribbling down her chin and she lets me.
‘Now,’ I say, ‘you look lovely.’
I take out the envelope with Kay Norton written on it, there’s a little smudge on the front of it. It’s been opened and closed lots of times. I peel it open and take out the neatly folded letter and photo. I hold the photo flat in the palm of my hand and show it to Kay. She looks at it for a long time.
‘You look different in that, your hair must be brushed a different way or something.’ She says.
She smiles and puts it down. She looks at her empty plate and then back at me. I don’t know how many more times I can tell her. ‘It’s not me,’ so I say nothing.
‘What day is today, is today Tuesday?’ she asks me again.
‘Friday,’ I say.
‘Oh, I thought it was Tuesday,’ she says again and laughs, just a little laugh and then her eyes cloud over and she slides away into wherever her thoughts go these days. Not for the first time that day I wonder have I done the right thing in letting him come to our house.
‘Will we go out?’ She says then, ‘out to the park?’
‘Yes, out to Sean Walsh Park,’ I say, ‘but not yet, we have to wait Kay, remember I told you we’re having a visitor.’ She looks up at me suspiciously.
I push my chair back from the table and the legs scrape against the floor. Kay’s eyes narrow, a pained expression on her face. I don’t know if it’s the noise of the chair legs or if it’s in the effort to remember. I hate to see her struggle, so I try to fill in the gaps again while I’m taking the dishes over to the sink. Her gaze does not follow me, she stays sitting staring straight ahead.
‘Robert is calling; we had the letter, remember? See? Look at the photo.’ I say. I can hear the pleading tone in my voice; I jerk my soapy covered thumb towards the photo and letter on the table beside her. Tiny suds fly off and land on the table, one on the folded up letter. She holds it and wipes it gently with her sleeve and the other yellowed photo of him as a baby, slides out from between the pages. She bites her lip and brings her hand up and covers her mouth with her fingers. Then she grazes them gently across the picture and touches the image of the hand that’s holding him, stopping where the Claddagh ring is. I gave that Claddagh ring to Kay on her fifteenth birthday. She turns her hand over and moves the ring, settles that same Claddagh like she always does. After a couple of moments she looks at the other photo and picks it up again, slowly and tilts her head to one side.
‘You look different in that, your hair must be brushed a different way or something,’
‘Yes,’ I say, my stomach churning. I realise I’m gritting my teeth and I hate myself for it. Maybe I shouldn’t have said he could come but how could I not.
I went out last night while she slept. She sleeps most deeply in the first hour or so after I give her the sleeping tablet. I walked the back roads. I saw deserted swings sway in the wind in some of the back gardens along our road. I let them carry me back to the places that haunt my memory.
Her cut lip was swollen and bloody; it trembled while we sat together that night after she’d had to give him up. After she heard the door slam she left her house and knew by the time her father got home he wouldn’t be able to see straight, never mind notice she wasn’t there. I held the face cloth; while she sat on the edge of the bath in my house and cooled it under the tap repeatedly. I tried to take some of the pain away. By the following morning she said she was grateful her Dad was able to wait until she’d had the baby and gave him up, before he’d let go and walloped her. Kay never gave our baby up she just spent her life missing him, we both did.
The ache in Kay was palpable, never more so, than when, years later, the day came that we finally papered over the baby wallpaper and took down the brightly coloured curtains and replaced them with a heavy dull fabric. It didn’t matter; it just became our spare room in the end.
In the silent lack of traffic I crossed the bridge heading towards the Square Shopping Centre and I stood for a while. I remembered the way I’d see Kay look at people as we passed them; really look at them, searching their faces. Sometimes you’d see people stare back at her but she didn’t appear to notice or if she did, she didn’t care. We used to walk through the park together. Sometimes she’d slow up as we’d pass the playground, she’d watch children getting pushed on the swings, or as they cruised down the slides back into someone’s arms. I used to wonder would she ever be able to stop looking for him, every child, every teenager and eventually every adult that she saw.
We’d take our time browsing around the shops and getting the weekly shopping. We’d go in to one of the cafes for lunch and to watch the world go by. I’d say, ‘It’s all there in the Square,’ to make her laugh and then sometimes if she could, she’d talk about Robert. It felt as though she thought the grief of losing him was hers alone, that she carried it within her. I regret that I didn’t find the words to tell her how I felt. To describe the savage loss that roared inside me, while on the outside I remained the silent listener.
When I turned to go back home I saw one of the trees was down on the river bank, where in the darkness of the winter it had collapsed with age, withered and died in the place of its birth.
‘Are we going to the movies,’ she says. ‘What day is today, is today Tuesday?’
We usually go to the IMC in the Square on a Tuesday, me and Kay. We both loved the movies and it’s one of the easier things for us to do together. It doesn’t really matter anymore what the film is, it’s just good to see her sitting comfortable beside me, the light of the flickering screen, lively and dancing, reflecting in her eyes.
‘What day is today, is it Tuesday?’ she calls after me, as the doorbell rings and I walk down the hall to open it. I’m almost afraid to look through the glass and terrified not to look in case he disappears before I get to him. He’s about my height not quite as thick around the middle as me and only the starting of a few grey hairs at his temples. He looks like he’s holding his breath until I get the door open. Our hands meet, there’s warmth in them. I want to just keep looking at him. There’s a resemblance I’ve never shared with anyone else.
‘Hello, come in, come in,’ I can feel myself starting to babble, ‘she’s inside; we were just finishing up after our breakfast.’
‘I’m sorry, I know it’s terrible early for calling, but you did say on the phone it’s better for Kay early in the day.’
‘Of course, not at all, don’t worry at all, it’s perfect, really, it’s perfect.’
He smiles at me then, a big broad smile and some of the strain seems to leave his face. His eyes are dark brown. They’re just like mine and he’s inherited my jawline too. I can feel myself start to relax a little until I bring him into the kitchen and introduce him to Kay. I don’t know if it’s my imagination or does she seem pleased to see him? Does she know who he is? Is it too much to hope for, could she even just for a moment understand what this means?
He sits at the table opposite her. It’s so hard to talk. Somehow it’s too sweet and too painful to look at. I excuse myself for a moment and go out to the bathroom. When I come back into the room I see her standing, she’s holding Robert in an embrace, it doesn’t look right. It’s how she would have held me. I look into his face and see the awkwardness, the helpless look in his eyes. She turns her face from within the crook of his neck, the girlish smile familiar and then she looks at me and whispers up into his face, ‘who’s that?’ After a moment she looks confused as if she knows she’s said something wrong, she unfolds her arms from around him and looks down at her hand and turns the Claddagh ring.
‘What day is today, is today Tuesday?’ Her voice is quiet and unsure.
A long time later, when I close the kitchen door to walk him out, I lean out to reach the latch and I take the opportunity to touch his elbow. I try to thank him for coming but the words won’t come.
‘If you could only know how happy she will be when she realises,’ I say, stuttering over my words, shuffling from one foot to the other. I search the air for the words I need, desperately trying to talk around the lump in my throat. I try to tell him how much this will mean to her and how much it means to me. I’m asking him to come again. ‘She might be altogether better another day, she still has days when some things seem clear, you will come again won’t you?’ I can hear desperation in my voice like I’ve never heard before.
He’s outside now, one step backwards and then another, his eyes are crinkled, like the light is too much for him, I can see the long thorny stems above his head. My brain has shut down, it’s like the cinema screen when the film is over and all you can see is white and all you can hear is a long low buzzing sound.