Authors: Anne Enright
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Family Life
The Green Road
for Nicky Grene
Ardeevin, Co. Clare
LATER, AFTER HANNA
made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the big kettle on the range.
‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ she said. ‘Get me some Solpadeine.’
‘My head’s a fog,’ she said. ‘And ask your uncle for amoxicillin, will I spell that for you? I have a chest coming on.’
‘All right,’ said Hanna.
‘Try anyway,’ she said, coaxingly, taking the hot water bottle to her chest. ‘You will.’
The Madigans lived in a house that had a little river in the garden and its own name on the gate:
. But it was not far to walk, up over the humpy bridge, past the garage and into town.
Hanna passed the two petrol pumps standing sentry on the forecourt, with the big doors open and Pat Doran in there somewhere, reading the Almanac, or lying in the pit below a car. There was an oil drum by the swinging Castrol sign with the bare fork of a tree sticking out of it, and Pat Doran had dressed it in a pair of old trousers with two shoes stuck on the ends of the branches, so it looked like a man’s legs waving around in a panic after him falling into the barrel. It was very lifelike. Their mother said it was too near to the bridge, it would cause an accident, but Hanna loved it. And she liked Pat Doran, who they were told to avoid. He took them for rides in fast cars, up over the bridge, bang, down on the other side.
After Doran’s was a terraced row of little houses, and each of the windows had its own decoration and its own version of curtains or blinds: a sailboat made of polished horn, a cream tureen with plastic flowers in it, a pink felted plastic cat. Hanna liked each of them, as she passed, and she liked the way one followed the other in an order that was always the same. At the corner of the Main Street was the doctor’s, and the little hallway had a picture done out of nails and metallic string. The shape twisted over itself and twisted back again and Hanna loved the way it seemed to be moving but stayed still, it looked very scientific. After that were the shops: the draper’s, with a big window lined in yellow cellophane, the butcher’s, his trays of meat fenced around by bloodstained plastic grass, and after the butcher’s, her uncle’s shop – and her grandfather’s shop before him – Considine’s Medical Hall.
KODACHROME COLOUR FILM
was written on a plastic strip stuck along the top of the window with Kodak
in bold letters in the middle of it and
KODACHROME COLOUR FILM
repeated on the far side. The window display was cream pegboard, with little shelves holding cardboard boxes faded by the sun. ‘Just right for the constipated child,’ said a sign, in groovy red letters, ‘
the natural choice for constipation.’
Hanna pushed the door open, and the bell rang. She looked up at it: the coil of metal was filthy with dust while, many times an hour, the bell shook itself clean.
‘Come in,’ said her uncle Bart. ‘Come in or go out.’
And Hanna went inside. Bart was on his own out front, while a woman in a white coat moved around the dispensary, where Hanna was never allowed to go. Hanna’s sister, Constance, used to work the counter, but she had a job up in Dublin now, so they were a girl short and there was a testing irritation to the look her uncle gave Hanna.
‘What does she want?’ he said.
‘Em. I can’t remember,’ said Hanna. ‘Her chest. And Solpadeine.’
Bart winked. He had one of those winks that happen free of the surrounding face. Hard to prove it ever happened.
‘Have a cachou.’
‘Don’t mind if I do-hoo,’ said Hanna. She fingered a little tin of Parma Violets from in front of the cash register and sat in the prescriptions chair.
‘Solpadeine,’ he said.
Her uncle Bart was good-looking like her mother, they had the long Considine bones. Bart was a bachelor and a heartbreaker for all the years of Hanna’s girlhood, but now he had a wife who never put her foot in the door of the shop. He was proud of it, Constance said. There he was, paying shop-girls and assistants, and his wife banned from the premises in case she laughed at the parish priest’s impacted stools. Bart had a perfectly useless wife. She had no children and beautiful shoes in a range of colours, and each pair had its own matching bag. The way Bart looked at her, Hanna thought he might hate her, but her sister Constance said she was on the pill, because they had access to the pill. She said they were doing it twice a night.
‘How are they all?’ Bart was opening a pack of Solpadeine and taking the contents out.
‘Good,’ she said.
He tapped around the counter top looking for something and said, ‘Have you the scissors, Mary?’
There was a new stand in the middle of the shop of perfumes, shampoos and conditioners. There were other things on the lower shelves and Hanna realised she had been looking at them when her uncle came out of the back room with the scissors. But he did not pretend to notice: he did not even wink.
He cut the card of tablets in half.
‘Give her this,’ he said, handing over a set of four tablets. ‘Tell her to take a rain check on the chest.’
That was a joke, of some sort.
‘I will so.’
Hanna knew she was supposed to go then, but she was distracted by the new shelves. There were bottles of 4711 and Imperial Leather bath sets in cream and dark red cardboard boxes. There were a couple of bottles of Tweed and a cluster of other perfumes that were new to her. ‘Tramp’, said one bottle, with a bold slash for the crossbar of the T. On the middle shelf were shampoos that weren’t about dandruff, they were about sunshine and tossing your head from side to side – Silvikrin, Sunsilk, Clairol Herbal Essences. On the bottom shelf were puffy plastic packages and Hanna could not think what they were, she thought they must be cotton wool. She picked up Cachet by Prince Matchabelli, in a twisted oblong bottle, and inhaled where the cap met the cold glass.
She could feel her uncle’s eyes resting on her, and in them something like pity. Or joy.
‘Bart,’ she said. ‘Do you think Mammy’s all right?’
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Bart said. ‘What?’
Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.
Dan was in his first year of college up in Galway. They would let him finish his degree, he said, but he would do it from the seminary. So in two years he would be finished in ordinary college and in seven years he would be a priest, and after that he would be off on the missions. It was all decided. He announced all this when he came home for the Easter holidays and their mother went upstairs and did not come down. She said she had a pain in her elbow. Dan said he had little enough to pack and then he would be gone.
‘Go up to the shops,’ said her father, to Hanna. But he didn’t give her any money, and there was nothing she wanted to buy. Besides, she was afraid that something would happen if she left, there would be shouting. Dan would not be there when she got back. His name would never be mentioned again.
But Dan did not leave the house, not even to go for a walk. He hung around the place, sitting in one chair and then moving to another, avoiding the kitchen, accepting the offer of tea or turning it down. Hanna carried the cup to Dan’s room, with something to eat tucked in on the saucer; a ham sandwich or a piece of cake. Sometimes he only took a bite of the food and Hanna finished it as she took it back to the kitchen, and the stale edge to the bread made her even more fond of her brother, in his confinement.
Dan was so unhappy. Hanna was only twelve and it was terrible for her to see her brother so pent up – all that belief, and the struggle to make sense of it. When Dan was still at school, he used to make her listen to poems off his English course, and they talked about them afterwards and about all kinds of other things, too. This is what her mother also said, later. She said, ‘I told him things that I told to no one else.’ And this statement was very teasing to Hanna, because there was very little of herself that their mother held back. Her children were never what you might call ‘spared’.
Hanna blamed the Pope. He came to Ireland just after Dan left for college and it was like he flew in specially, because Galway was where the big Youth Mass was held, out on the racecourse at Ballybrit. Hanna went to the Limerick Mass, which was just like standing in a field with your parents for six hours, but her brother Emmet was let go to Galway too, even though he was only fourteen and you were supposed to be sixteen for the Youth Mass. He left in a minibus from the local church. The priest brought a banjo and when Emmet came back he had learned how to smoke. He did not see Dan in the crowd. He saw two people having sex in a sleeping bag, he said, but that was the night before, when they all camped in a field somewhere – he could not tell his parents what was the place.
‘And where was the field?’ said their father.
‘I don’t know,’ said Emmet. He did not mention the sex.
‘Was it a school?’ said their mother.
‘I think so,’ said Emmet.
‘Was it beyond Oranmore?’
They slept in tents, or pretended to sleep, because at four in the morning they all had to pack up and troop through the pitch black to the racecourse. Everyone walked in silence, it was like the end of a war, Emmet said, it was hard to explain – just the sound of feet, the sight of a cigarette glowing at someone’s face before it was whipped away. We were walking into history, the priest said, and when the dawn came, there were men with yellow armbands in their good suits, standing under the trees. That was it, as far as Emmet was concerned. They sang ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ and he came back with his voice gone and the dirtiest clothes his mother had ever seen; she had to put them through the wash twice.
‘Was it on the road to Athenry?’ their father said. ‘The field?’
The location of the field outside Galway was one abiding mystery in the Madigan family, another was what had happened to Dan, after he went to college. He came back for Christmas and fought with his granny about taking precautions, and his granny was all in favour of taking precautions, that was the joke of it, her sister Constance said, because ‘precautions’ were actually condoms. Later, after the pudding was lit, Dan passed Hanna in the hall and he took took her to him, saying, ‘Save me, Hanna. Save me from these ghastly people.’ He folded her in his arms.
On New Year’s Day a priest called to the house and Hanna saw him sitting in the front room with both her parents. The priest’s hair had the mark of the comb in it, as though it was still wet, and his coat, hanging under the stairs, was very black and soft.
After this, Dan went back to Galway and nothing happened until the Easter break, when he said he wanted to be a priest. He made the big announcement at Sunday dinner, which the Madigans always did with a tablecloth and proper napkins, no matter what. On that Sunday, which was Palm Sunday, they had bacon and cabbage with white sauce and carrots – green, white and orange, like the Irish flag. There was a little glass of parsley sitting on the tablecloth, and the shadow of the water trembled in the sunshine. Their father folded his large hands and said grace, after which there was silence. Apart from the general sound of chewing, that is, and their father clearing his throat, as he tended to do, every minute or so.