Emma M.Murray – In Those Days

Emma M.Murray is a mother, wife, teacher and writer. She spent most of her twenties with a rucksack slung across her back, travelling extensively around the world. She returned to her native Donegal, a few years ago. She has had short stories and flash fiction pieces published by Rue Scribe, 365 Tomorrows, Ireland Writing Retreat and others. She was named as a finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards competition, in both the creative non-fiction and fiction categories in 2021.


In Those Days

The sound of the school bell at three o’clock finally signalled freedom.

It’s shrill ringing releasing us from captivity.

From a teacher who’s sally-rod hung menacingly above the dusty chalkboard.

“C’mon, lets knick-knock old Mrs Lynch’s,” Maggie tempted, closing the school gate behind us.

She was always the messer.

The brave one.

Her long blonde curls swam over her petite frame and her blue eyes glinted mischievously, when an idea of malevolence took hold.

“No way Maggie, that place gives me the creeps,” I explained, but she already knew that.

An overgrown tree lined lane led to old Mrs Lynch’s small, dank cottage.

Never any cattle or sheep grazing in her field.

No dogs running around outside.

Not even a stray cat lingered too long.

Smoke swirled from her chimney like lonely ghosts, reaching for the heavens.

Net curtains stained with age, draped the tiny windows.

Mrs. Lynch kept to herself and her only child Isaac rarely attended school. When he did, he towered above the rest us and wore a permanent downcast frown. No one knew what age he was or what class he should be in. He rocked back and forth rhythmically on a tiny wooden chair. Playground voices whispered words like retard and thicko when he passed by.

“C’mon scaredy cat! Sure don’t they say she’s blind! She’d not be able to see us, never mind catch us!”

“Don’t be at it Maggie, it’s nearly dark. I’m going home…”

“SCAREDY CAT!”

“And what if Isaac comes out?” I cried.

“So what if he does?! He’s as dumb as the day’s long that fella!”

And with that she turned and sprinted down the lonely lane.

She always did this to me…

Making me do things I didn’t want to!

I loved her dearly, my best friend…

But she could be an outlandish rogue at times.

My feet which had remained rooted in stubbornness only moments before, soon followed her briskly. Angrily snapping the left-over autumnal leaves with every step.

The sharp crackling underfoot sending shivers down my spine.

Together we crouched behind the turf stack, only metres from the cottage. In such close proximity I was afraid Maggie would hear my heart beating through my chest.

We shouldn’t be here

We’d been warned

“Don’t go near Mrs Lynch’s…she doesn’t bother us…so don’t bother her…she’s a bit odd…” empty rumblings of stories untold.

Even being here feels wrong.

An uneasiness crawls over my skin, prickling my conscience.

It’s colder here too.

My teeth chatter involuntarily, threatening to expose my fears.

“Please Maggie, let’s just go, it’s getting dark. My Ma is gonna kill me!”

A twinkle in her eye, a shimmer of rebellion, and without a seconds warning she bolts for the backdoor. She pounds three heavy bangs with her knuckles, before running as fast as she can back towards the turf stack.

Immediately I dashed back through the messy leaves. I ran so fast it felt as though my lungs might collapse inside my chest. That my legs would fail me and fall from my body. Fear and adrenaline completely taking over.

When far enough from danger we abruptly came to a halt. Rapidly gasping the cool air, attempting to catch our breath.

I could’ve strangled her for being so ruthless.

“What the hell did ya do that for!”

A sly unscrupulous look crossed her face before she began to giggle.

A husky childish sound…laced with a hint of something else.

“Ah fuck it! My charm bracelet!” Maggie cried, stroking her bare arm, whilst frantically searching beneath her “where is it?”

“It’s too dark to find it now.”

She wasn’t listening “it’s not here, it must’ve fallen off.”

Though it was only early evening, an unearthly dusk blanketed the countryside.

An unforgiving Irish winter.

“I have to go back…”

“No you don’t!”

“Yes I DO! My Daddy gave me that bracelet…” her normally strong voice trailing to a whisper.

A mountain of sadness echoed between us.

Her delicate silver bracelet held immeasurable sentiment. The fisherman’s boat charm dangled from her wrist as she wrote in class. Mr Murphy, the headmaster, once started a rant about wearing jewellery in school before noticing the undeniable shape and stopping mid-sentence. Maggie was the only one who ever wore jewellery from that day on.

“Leave it til the morning and I’ll help ya,” I begged, “I promise!”

She eyed me quizzically.

One look assuring me I’d never understand.

A small sad smile curved her lips as she turned and walked away.

“Good night Therese.”

It was a little before midnight when all hell broke lose. When Maggie hadn’t returned home for dinner no one batted an eyelid. But when she hadn’t come home in time for the nightly rosary, her mother began to panic. Her older brothers were sent out searching the fields. She was fond of daydreaming, talking to the animals, chatting with the old folk.

Yet there was no sign of her anywhere.

They came by our house to check she hadn’t come home with me, the last to have seen her, and then continued their search.

When the local Gardaí showed up at my door I froze with fear.

These were the people who put you in jail if you were bad

What did they want with me!

“Just answer the Garda’s questions pet, they only want to find Maggie,” my mother assured me.

The men of the parish scoured the land with torches.

Candles of hope lit the neighbours windows.

Well I can’t tell them about the knick-knocking… We’ll only get into serious trouble!

Maggie can tell them when she gets back…it was her stupid idea anyway…

Words like ‘crucial witness’ and ‘final sighting’ floated above my head in our humble kitchen.

An eerie silence flooded our home after the Gardaí left. My mother’s tear stained face awash with worry. I lay in her embrace, as the wind howled through our hollow chimney.

Drifting off to sleep, I heard a tap, tap, tapping on the window.

A desperate plea, a lost soul…

“Mama…?”

“It’s just the wind my dear,” she whispered as her grip tightened around me.

Hours later the men returned, beaten by the elements, and some by realisation.

Soaked to the skin.

Brows thick with mud and despair.

Standing by the diminishing fire, trying to warm their shivering bodies.

For three long arduous days, every inch of the parish was combed, and everyone was questioned.

I watched from the road side as a Garda approached Mrs Lynch’s cottage.

I watched as the top half of the door opened inward and he spoke to a shadow.

I watched as he replaced his hat and retraced his steps… and ours.

I watched as his feet stomped the sodden leaves, and nothing shone.

In those days you didn’t ask questions…

In those days you believed what you were told…

In those days people were honest and good

And if for some reason they weren’t, well, you didn’t want to know why.

Soon, all talk of Maggie also disappeared. The story became a local legend, with everyone having their own theory on what befell her.

Some say she ran away, her free spirit seeking adventure.

Some say she lay in a watery grave, a self fulfilling prophecy.

But most believed she became disorientated in the dark, took a wrong step and fell into a bog-hole too deep for her to escape from.

I’m not sure what I believed, but I feared the dark from that day on.

                                                           ****

Irish winters are always long, however a covid lockdown made this one feel even longer. Chained to the house by restrictions, and rain.

Inhabiting a world we could never have imagined.

A world that looked so familiar but felt completely different.

Rural Donegal was changing and adapting just like everyone else.

When old Mrs Lynch’s body was removed from her home, the locals lined the roadside in a solemn mark of respect.

No wake to go to anymore, although rumour had it her body was going to be cremated. No funeral, no burial.

Not even a priest…

But they always had been weird.

Isaac sat in the front of the hearse.

Pale and hunched.

Eyes unfocused.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up spontaneously as the coffin drove by.

I shooed my own children inside, avoiding their innocent ‘who are they?’ questions.

Neighbours unknown.

We were eventually freed from our confinements in Spring. The sounds of chirping birds filled the air with joy and an array of yellowing daffodils painted the land. Even the windows on Mrs Lynch’s cottage were opened and the trees outside tidied and trimmed.

Life bloomed once more.

The local community centre activities resumed soon after. Volunteers were asked to help out with litter picking and other overdue maintenance work. More people than usual showed up.

The centre was teeming with satisfied individuals late one Saturday evening, after the building had been freshly painted and new hanging baskets hung brightly outside.

I made sure there was enough tea, coffee and sandwiches to go around.

It was a pleasure to see people together and smiling once more.

Most of the crowd had dissipated when Mary, the manager, rushed in in a flurry, “sorry Therese but would you mind locking up? Jim’s after getting a puncture and he’s in a tizzy!”

“Go on, I’m nearly done here,” I said rinsing the last of the dishes, “I’ll see ya Monday morning.”

“You’re a star,” Mary shouted over her shoulder as she hurried for the front door.

Quickly I scanned the hall, retrieving a few stray coffee cups. Switching off all the lights, I set the security alarm and secured the main door behind me.

It was later than I’d anticipated.

The sun merely lingered on the horizon.

Reaching for my phone I quickly pressed the torch icon. As the sun set the trees cast dark shadows on this remote road. I made a mental note to highlight the need for streetlights at our next committee meeting.

Thankfully I didn’t have far to walk.

Nearing a turn in the road I noticed a lone figure up ahead.

Walking so slowly I couldn’t be sure which direction they were going.

The torch swung curiously in my hand as I approached with caution.

Sweeping up ahead for answers.

It caught a swift glimpse of the stranger, and I could’ve sworn I saw a flash of silver.

Sparkling like a charm.

“Hello?” I shouted, shaky vocal cords betraying my composure, “are ya alright there?”

Long fair tresses fall from under her hood as she turns to face me.

It’s too dark to make out her features, but I know she’s smiling.

She doesn’t speak, and doesn’t move.

She glares directly at me, right into my soul.

I stop walking, becoming increasingly aware of my vulnerability, my racing heart.

The light shakes in my trembling hand and shines instinctively upon her wrist.

A boat?

Adrift.

Lit by a solitary light…

My blood runs cold.

Clouds of frenzied thoughts saturate my mind, it can’t be…

She stares, through darkness old and new.

A throaty giggle escapes her, as if hidden by decades of murky water.

Buoyant, she turns,

and walks away…

“Good night Therese.”

 

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