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Authors: Christine Dwyer Hickey

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BOOK: The Lives of Women
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‘Just till my father is sorted. What about the others, Brenda – how are they?'

‘The others?'

‘Your brothers and June. How's June?'

‘Gerry is a policeman, a detective actually – must have inherited the genes – quite high up too, just like Daddy. Peter is a market gardener up North. He married a lovely Chinese girl, two of the most beautiful children – but he's divorced now. Daddy died a couple of years ago, you heard?'

There's a short silence and I wonder if this is where I'm supposed to say how sorry I am. I take off my coat and throw it across the back of the chair.

‘And June?'

‘June? Oh you know. June lives in Birmingham. Or she did, last I heard. She doesn't really keep in touch. She used to phone Peter the odd time but…'

‘I see.'

‘Yeah, well, that's June for you.'

‘She was such a beautiful girl.'

‘Yeah. But you know, I really,
don't want to talk about June.'

‘Right. Would you like tea, Brenda?'

She nods, opens her coat, pulls off her scarf and stands clutching it in both hands, blinking at the table. Then she finally comes out with it: ‘I see the Shillman house has been sold.'

‘Has it?' I turn away and begin filling the kettle.

‘You didn't notice?'


‘Well, it's been sold. At least I think it's been sold – there was no sign up or anything but the whole place is being gutted. I'm surprised you didn't hear the racket?'

‘I heard something all right, but you know – people are always fixing up their houses, aren't they?'

I stick my head into the cupboard and begin fussing around with cups.

‘It's been rented here and there over the years.'

‘Has it?'

‘Lying empty for the past while, though. God there were some right specimens went through those doors, I don't mind telling you. The United Nations building, my father used to call it.'

‘Who bought it – do you know?'

‘Never mind who bought it, Elaine! Who sold it? That's what I'd like to know!'

I put two mugs on the counter and go back to the fridge.

‘And where did all that stuff come from?' she continues.

‘What stuff?'

‘Their things. The garden is full, front and back. Furniture,
clothes, everything. I was in the house a few years ago. I didn't see any of it. Come on, I would have noticed.'

‘I'm sure you would.'

‘What's that supposed to mean?'

‘Nothing. The attic. That house has a huge attic. They never converted it.'

She nods and then: ‘We never heard from them after, you know. Not a word. They just upped and went and… Not a word.'


‘What do you call that candelabra thing? Shaped like a spade?'

‘A menorah.'

‘That's right. A menorah. Why would they leave that behind if it meant so much to Mr Shillman? Apart from anything else, it must be worth a packet.'

She looks at her scarf again, turns it once or twice in her hands, then blurts, ‘I saw the haversack.'

I take the biscuit tin off the top shelf.



‘I'm saying, I saw the haversack.'

‘A haversack,' I say, ‘is a haversack. Could be anyone's from over the years. One of those tenants you mentioned.'

‘I saw it on the lawn and a couple of days later when I went in—'

‘You went in?'

I slide a few biscuits onto the plate and then come back to her.

‘Just to the garden.'

‘You went in, Brenda?'

‘The workmen were gone home. Nobody saw me. I found it in the shed. It wasn't as if I was breaking in – there's no lock on the door. The badges were on it. All the cities he was going to visit? Remember? It was Karl's haversack, I'm telling you.'

‘You didn't take it – did you?'

‘No. Of course not. I didn't touch it.'

‘Did you look inside?'

‘No! No, I didn't fucking look inside. I couldn't look inside. I couldn't touch it.'

‘All right, Brenda, Jesus, take it easy will you?'

‘But what if there is anything inside it, Elaine? What if…?'

We stand staring at each other. She is waiting for me to say something, to tell her what we should do. I can think of nothing to say. I can think of nothing but the small, cold eel twisting around in my stomach.

Lynette comes to my rescue then, popping her broad brown face around the door, smiling her mile-wide smile. ‘All happy now,' she says, ‘concert time.'

‘Oh, good. This is Brenda, by the way, a neighbour.'

‘Ahhh, a neighbour. A
. I think sometimes all houses maybe empty around here.'

She gives us one of her sideways waves, disappears back out to the hall and there is the lonely sound of the front door clicking behind her.

‘See you tomorrow,' I call after her.


The first few piano notes tip into the house. We listen.

‘He still plays then?' Brenda asks.

‘Every evening for a couple of hours. He's no trouble really.'

‘What does he play?'

‘His scales for a while. Then whatever happens to be next in the pile.'

I pour the tea, pass a mug across the counter to her. Then hold the milk carton over the mug—

‘Leave it now, Brenda. There's no point. It's too late.'

‘I'm just saying, I saw it, that's all.'

‘Fine, you saw it. But forget it now.'

She sighs. ‘You wouldn't have a drink – would you? Something a bit stronger than tea?'

‘We don't keep drink in the house any more, I'm afraid.'

I pour the milk into the mugs.

‘No? Not even a drop of brandy or something? Not even for medicinal purposes?'


‘How times change.' She gives a sad and slightly sarcastic smile then begins to put her scarf back around her neck.

She stands and goes to the window looking out towards the Shillman house as though checking out the view. But these gardens are long and heavily shrubbed and, at this level anyhow, there is nothing to see.

‘Jesus, though,' she says then, ‘it makes you think about it – doesn't it? It makes you—'

‘Only if you allow it.'

‘Oh, come on. You're not saying you don't?'

‘No. Not really.'

‘All right for you, I suppose. You got away. You got to go to New York while… I was left here, facing them all. Day after day. The shame of it. We couldn't even put our house up for sale. We had to stay here.

I open my mouth to swipe back at her, but I don't need a row with Brendie Caudwell right now.

We watch the dog waddle around the kitchen, then ease himself down into his battered basket. My father continues to work the piano. I can usually gauge his mood by the tone of his playing. Today he's morose – even his scales have a touch of the Death March about them.

‘Well, I should probably go…' she says.

‘Mrs Hanley,' I say then. ‘Sometimes I think about her. And Agatha. Of course I do. I've never stopped thinking about her.'


I follow her through the hall, open the front door and we exchange a sort of grimace, easier with each other now that we are almost done. She steps outside and turns to me.

‘My youngest will be home from school soon. Fourteen. The others are seventeen, nineteen.'


‘The two lads, they're great. Both in college, one doing business studies, the other… one of those fancy computer courses – I can't even think of the name of it. She's a bit of a handful, though. Misses her old school. Her home. We'd a lovely home, Elaine, you know, we really did. She blames me for everything. Thinks it's my fault the marriage broke up and that we lost the house. It wasn't
my fault. None of it was my fault. It wasn't even his, before you ask.'


‘It was the bank's fault. And he wouldn't fight them, you see. He just wouldn't—'

‘The bank's?'

‘It's always the fucking bank, Elaine. If you don't know that, you're one of the lucky ones.'

I can see she's getting a bit tetchy now.

‘Okay, sure.'

‘God, you sound so New Yorky,' she says, and I know this is supposed to be an insult.

‘Well, I have lived there longer than I ever lived here.'

‘And you know, you shouldn't really leave the front door key out here like that, just lying there under a brick. Jesus.'


‘Anyone could just walk straight in. It's not like the old days around here, you know.'

‘Just as well, maybe.'

She turns away. ‘Anyway, I better get back. If I'm not there, it'll be dump the schoolbag and off with her till God knows what hour. Walks over my mother. And she's not been well at all. Poor old Mums.'

I watch her pass through the gate, her tweed coat tightening at the hips as she closes the buttons, the sleeve of her coat on the far side of the wall, buffing the gaps in the hedge.

And, ‘Fuck poor old Mums,' I think.


Back in the kitchen, I stand for a moment looking out into the darkening garden. Another day sneaked off behind my back.

I empty the tea down the sink, put the biscuits back into the tin and tidy away all traces of Brendie Caudwell. Then I open the connecting door to the garage, step down and prise open the lid of the chest freezer. For a moment I can't remember what I am doing standing here, watching gusts of icy breath whisper around my wrists. My mind is stuck in New York, in the moments following that first phone call from my mother. The way everything stopped after I'd hung up the phone. Where there had been television voices in another room – there was a silence. Where Serena had been banging around the kitchen making canapés for an event the following day – there was a deathly stillness. Even the purl of traffic coming up from West 57th ceased in that moment of absolute deafness.

And I can see myself now as I was then, standing in the hallway of Serena's apartment staring at the phone, drowning in my own snot and tears, breathless with shock,
. At the realisation that I would not be going home again. Not in my mother's lifetime anyhow.

‘You should be grateful,' she'd said. ‘You should realise just how lucky you are.'

‘I'm begging you,

‘Oh, for goodness sake. If this is going to happen every time I telephone… all this emotionality. All this…'

‘Well, can I speak to Daddy then?'

‘He went out a few minutes ago.'

‘But it's the middle of the night!'

‘Oh dear! Don't tell me I've woken Serena and Patty?'

night. Yours. We haven't even gone to bed here yet. Are you drunk?'


‘How can you not know if it's the middle of the night?'

‘I don't sleep any more. I don't sleep! That's how! And stop that crying. They'll hear you crying. Crying like it's somebody else's fault. Like there's always somebody else to blame…'

‘I'm sorry, please, I'm sorry.'

‘Sorry is no good to you now. Sorry is not going to make the slightest difference.'

‘No, no wait. I. I just want to ask when can I come home. I want to come home. Just give me a date – I don't care if it's weeks or even months away.'

‘Didn't you hear what I just said? Can't you just listen? We got you out of it, your father and I. We risked everything to get you out of it. And now we're finished with you.


I go into the sitting room and bring the horse-shoe ice bucket to the cabinet. Behind me, my father is playing ‘Red Sails in the Sunset' with knobs on. I take two Waterford cut glasses and arrange the ice, two cubes to a glass. I watch his turn to amber with a measure of Scotch and mine turn to diamond-white with two measures of vodka and a tip of tonic.

I go to the piano, place his Scotch on the coaster and stand for a moment watching his fingers slither over the keyboard.

He stops playing – as he usually does whenever I linger. Then
he closes the manuscript book, drops it onto the stack on the floor and picks another off the smaller pile that he keeps on the top of the piano.

‘Brenda Caudwell was just here,' I say.

He settles the new music on the stand and flicks through the pages. I wait for a moment then move towards the door. Behind me the chime of ice in a glass.

‘What did she want?' he asks.

‘She came to tell me the Shillman house has been sold. I think she may be worried one of them is moving back – their furniture, you see, is all—'

‘If she calls again, don't bring her in.'

‘What? I can hardly just leave her standing on the doorstep.'

He takes another short swig from his glass and puts it back down on the coaster.

‘Let me make myself clear. I don't want her or anyone belonging to her in
house – is that understood?'

I am cut by the tone of his voice.

‘Fine,' I say, ‘it's your house.'

‘That's right, it is.'

He returns to his piano and glides his hands back into the music.



Summer Past


is spent lying down. Lying on her bed up in her room. Lying and listening and thinking. On warm afternoons, she goes out to the back garden and lies on the patio lounger. In the evenings she lies on the sofa watching whatever television programme her mother happens to be watching, saying yes, no, I don't know, maybe, to all of her pointless questions about people named Crystal or Sue Ellen or Mavis. As if they really existed and, even if they did, as if they could possibly lead such convoluted lives. At first touch of nightfall, she goes back upstairs and lies on her bed again.

BOOK: The Lives of Women
10.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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