All Of Us Here By Joy Wodhams
They weren’t like me. No, not even in the dark days when we were all of us here. They’re not like me now.
I watch through a gap in the lace curtains as they alight from the taxi. One of them – is it Grace? – heaves open the iron gate that has hung askew as long as I can remember, and they pick their way fastidiously along the moss-covered path.
They are chatting, the three of them. I can see they want to enjoy the meeting, the opportunity to catch up on gossip without the burden of their husbands, but they are aware that this is a sober occasion and they arrange their faces accordingly.
I open the front door.
One of them flings her arms around me and I inhale her exotic musky scent. Joanne? They all look alike now, their hair expertly cut and blonded, their bodies uniformly slim and toned beneath their designer suits. Black, of course. I smooth down my old woollen dress, the grey one patterned with sprays of mauve roses, the nearest I could get to conventional mourning. Not that I want to mourn. I want to rejoice, to laugh and shriek and roll myself on the floor. But I can’t do it. I’m still conscious of him up there. The man in the bed.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I ask.
Maureen – if it is Maureen – how would I know? I haven’t seen or heard from them in a dozen years – smiles. ‘Got anything stronger?’
‘There’ll be some of his whiskey in the cupboard. Under the sink,’ I add, in case she doesn’t remember his regular hiding place.
I pour myself a glass of milk while she sloshes generous portions of the spirit into three glasses. There are still two full bottles in the back of the cupboard.
We sit round the kitchen table, me drinking my milk, them taking polite sips of the whiskey. Do they remember? Can they still picture him pouring that same Jameson’s down his throat, his face red and sweating, his eyes switching between us, challenging, waiting for one of us to make a wrong move, say the wrong thing, pull the wrong face?
But they were smarter than me and Mam. They knew when to slip away, where to hide, even how to deflect him with a smile and a plate of stew or a mug of cocoa.
And then, one by one, as soon as they were old enough to leave school, to have their own passports, to find ways to make money, they were away. Joanne, off with her Sixth Form boyfriend on the ferry to Liverpool. Maureen on the train up to Belfast and a job making beds in a big hotel. Grace, the tallest and prettiest of us, to become a model for a fashion catalogue. All of them now in England. They never sent their addresses, they were still scared of him, even with borders and the Irish Sea between us, but for a while I got Christmas cards with little snippets of information which I hungered for and cherished.
I was still just a skinny little kid when the last of them stole away. Who was left to protect me? Just Mam, or rather the frail white ghost of her.
She went next. He didn’t mean her to die, she was still too useful in the house. He got away with it. She had slipped on the wet kitchen tiles, he said, and hit her head on the table corner, and I – well, I was still too young and too scared to say anything different.
So. That left me.
I could have run away after Mam died, sneaked off while he was in one of his drunken stupors, but I was too much of a coward and scared he would come after me – the last one, the only one left to feed him, clean him up, get him to bed. I was scared of how he would punish me. So I stayed.
But now. Now it’s my turn.
‘The undertakers will be here in the morning. Nine o’clock. D’you want to go up and see him?’ I asked.
Grace shuddered. ‘No, thanks.’
‘Does he still look the same?’ asked Maureen.
I shook my head. ‘He’s a bit shrivelled – and he’s bald, more or less. Can’t harm you now. You sure you don’t want to see him? Pay your last respects?’
‘Quite sure, thank you.’ said Joanne. ‘So, Chrissie. What’s going to happen after the funeral?’
‘There’ll be drinks and sandwiches at McGinley’s.’
‘No, I mean... You. The house. Was there a Will?’
‘Well?’ said Joanne at last. ‘What did it say?’
‘He left me the house.’ The only decent thing he ever did for me.
‘And – the money?’
‘What money? You think there’s a crock of gold somewhere and you deserve a share?’
She shifted in her seat. ‘Well, there are four of us, Chrissie. We’re all his daughters.’
‘I was nine when the last of you left. Nine! And you never called, you never wrote—’
‘Cards. We sent cards—’
‘Not even when Mam died.’
‘We were scared he’d trace us,’ said Grace. ‘Drag us back.’
I stood up, grabbed the empty glasses and threw them into the sink. One of them shattered. I ignored it. I filled a kettle, lit the gas, put tea bags into four mugs. My eyes were misted. I blinked hard. I couldn’t let them see me cry.
‘There is no money. Only what I managed to put by from the housekeeping he gave me. He drank the rest.’
‘Well, at least you’ll have the house,’ said Maureen soothingly. ‘You should sell it. Start a new life. Come to England. Get a job.’
‘Doing what? Keeping house for another man? That’s all I’m trained for.’
‘For Heaven’s sake, Chrissie!’ Joanne snapped. ‘Stop being such a wimp. None of us had training or qualifications. You’re young, just get out there and look around. You’ll find something.’
‘OK. But where would I stay? Would one of you be able to put me up?’
I’d anticipated the silence. The fidgeting with their handbags, the sips of cooling tea. The excuses.
I didn’t tell them. Why should I? I didn’t tell them about the money I’d salted away patiently over the years. Pennies from his pockets, the odd pound coin from his drawer, the refunds I’d requested on items he’d ordered and then forgotten, Mam’s bits and pieces that I’d sold. I had my own bank account now, and very healthy it was too.
I didn’t tell them about the property agent who’d already valued the house, taken photographs and was only waiting for my consent to put it on the market.
I didn’t tell them about the ferry ticket I’d already booked, about the interviews I’d set up over the next ten days.
I didn’t tell them about the new clothes I’d ordered online, the appointment at the hairdressing salon, the expensive one in the High Street.
After the funeral, after my sisters had departed in a twitter, after I’d cleaned the house and put the keys in an envelope for the property agent, I packed my new clothes into my new case and tossed all the old ones and the old memories into the dustbin. Time now for the new hairdo, and then a taxi, all the way to Dublin and an overnight stay in one of their best hotels before boarding the ferry.
I set my case down beside the front door. Just a final check now to make sure everything was in order and I’d left behind nothing of value.
I started in the kitchen, unnaturally neat and the stale aromas of ale and whisky scrubbed away. I thought of all the meals that had been thrown to the floor, the plates shattered, droplets of hot tea or cocoa sliding down the walls.
The parlour, stripped of its ancient three-piece suite and the television set that no longer worked.
My bedroom, as bare as a convent cell.
The bed was gone but I still saw it. And him in it. I could hear him, railing, ranting, demanding. Such a big man until the cancer got him. I had prayed for the cancer. Prayed that it would get him before he got me.
I turned and hurried down the stairs. I put on my new coat, cherry red with a black velvet collar. I picked up my case and opened the front door.
Outside, the sun was shining. The sky was blue, jaunty little clouds scudding across it. There was a hum of traffic and somewhere music blaring out through an open window.
A new life waited for me.
But the house... I felt it, heavy around my shoulders, the weight of all its memories trapping me. And the fear, not gone as I had believed, just hiding, ready to wrap its coils around me again.
I don’t know how long I stood there. The time for my salon appointment came and went. The clouds closed ranks and hid the sun. The street settled down to a late afternoon stupor.
Tomorrow, I told myself. Or maybe next week.
I put down my case, stepped back inside and closed the front door.