Paula tried the front door. Locked. But the car was in the drive. Covered in the yellow, curling leaves that had fallen from the ginger-haired sugar maple that sprouted from the neighbour’s lawn and shook its detritus over Aileen and Evan’s driveway every autumn.
She went around the house, following the little stone path. She reached over the waist-high wooden gate, unlocked it, and went to the back door. The unmistakeable whirr and clank of the washing-machine or the dryer came through the open utility-room window. Someone was in.
Then why was the front locked? No harm of burglary here, in this nice little hamlet between Mayo and Galway, where the only demographic to be worried about were the elderly and their propensity for random fall-and-lawsuits.
She pushed the back door. Open, thank God.
Paula entered the utility, the smell of dog-food and laundry detergents mingling to create a chalky, soapy smell. She went into the kitchen. The TV in the corner, on the little glass stand, was on. A newscaster spoke at low-volume. Tickertape ran across the screen: diplomatic problems in some Middle Eastern country, new legislation on some kind of vice, a T.D. lightly condemning X, Y, or Z.
−Hello? Paula called, going to the hall door. She went to the foot of the stairs, and shouted up again. −Hello?
Footsteps from above. Heavy, padding, slow, coming down the winder stairs. Aileen appeared.
−Oh. She was in a red dressing-gown, the poor love, and it three in the day. −Didn’t realise you were stopping by.
−I just— I was passing, Paula shrugged.
−Tea? Aileen led them back to the kitchen. She filled the kettle with water and flicked it on. One of those light-up-blue yokes, Paula’d have to tell Gerry to keep an eye out for one.
−Go on, a half-cup.
−Are you taking sugar now?
−Ooh. Hmm. I don— oh, go on, sure lent is well over now.
Aileen set out cups, two teaspoons, and the little sugar bowl they’d gotten from Evan’s grandparents as a wedding gift.
−You’re keeping that? Paula said, nodding at the bowl.
−Why wouldn’t I?
Paula sat at the kitchen table, tracing her fingers over the marks left in the wood: knife scrapes, deep-ringed coffee cup marks, and what were these? Signs of violence, perhaps? Temper lost, black eyes gained?
−He’s grand. H— She began, then cut herself off, cursing the muscle-memory that was cursory response. −Farm’s keeping him busy. Wants to get a second cut outta the meadow before the weather turns.
−Good stuff. And Jack?
−Ah, same old. Glad to be back in college, so he is.
−You must tell him to drop in on his way down home some day.
−I will, I will. Sure he’s barely home as it is. Wants to be spending all his time above in Laffey’s with his college mates.
−Jesus, is Laffey’s still open? Not been there in years. The kettle clicked. Aileen made the tea, bringing down a cup just over half to the kitchen table. −You want a biscuit or anything?
−Do you have gluten-free?
−I won’t risk it, then. I couldn’t stick those cramps with the drive home ahead of me. Wouldn’t be too bad if Gerry was driving, I could sleep it off.
−I’ll have something in for you the next time. Aileen shrugged. −But I never know when you’re calling.
−Like I said, I was passing. Have to drop Jack’s passport up to him.
−Needs it for some Erasmus thing he’s applying for.
Paula sipped her tea. It scalded her lips. She took another sip.
−How’ve you been? Paula asked, staring at the pink crescent she’d left on the cup’s rim.
−Fine. Aileen’s response was somewhat muffled. Paula looked up and saw Aileen lighting a cigarette, using the tin ashtray that had previously been situated out on the little picnic bench in the garden, the one all the sisters had congregated around two summers ago at Aileen and Evan’s barbecue, the husbands and brothers all standing on the grass, drinking warm beer, watching the football through the glass bay windows.
−Ah, sure you’d be a bundle of nerves after it, Paula said. −Imagine doing something like that. She clacked her tongue, Mother Henish.
−You want one? Aileen held out the cigarette pack.
−Ehh, no, Paula replied, looking nervously around. −I wouldn’t smoke inside.
−You’re more than welcome to stand out in the cold.
−It’s lovely out, actually.
A period of silence. The only sounds: blood rushing around Paula’s head, the oppressive buzz of quiet, the fzzz of Aileen wearing down the cigarette, the occasional flap of the dressing-gown, the sound of the washer/dryer.
−They’ve opened up a new Burgerjack’s on the Moycullen Road, Paula said.
−Remember that time we brought Jack and Mark there? And Mark vomited when Jack burst that balloon?
−Those were— they were simpler times.
−I guess, Aileen shrugged. She took a sip of tea. Paula followed suit.
−And Evan had to carry Mark and Jack from the car into the house? He was good with them too, wasn’t he?
−Yeah, he was.
−Such a shame.
−And when he took Jack to the Roscommon match. My God, he was a mad man for his football, wasn’t he? Sure, and him not even from Roscommon.
−He liked football, alright.
−Such a pity. And you think you know a person.
−Mark’s on about moral worldview where nothing is good and nothing is bad because of perspective, is how he sees it.
−Poor lad. Trying to cope, isn’t it?
−It’s actually interesting. Bad things can’t exist because people justify them. And good things are all for personal gain or pleasure. He says if we take it that only we, the individual, are real, in a— what’s the word he uses, starts with s, never mind— anyway, if we take it that the world begins and ends with us, then nothing is moral.
−Sure isn’t that the problem, Paula nodded. −Thinking the world revolves around you.
−I wouldn’t go in for all that psychology stuff ordinarily, but it was interesting.
−Therapy, that’s what you’d both need, after all of it. Though I suppose there’s no hope of reconciliation?
−Hmm? Oh, no, not at all. Done with that, I’m afraid.
−Awh. So sad. End of an era, isn’t it?
More silence, punctuated only by the contemplative slurps of tea.
−And have you seen yer wan lately? In the eyes of Paula and Gerry, that was the sobriquet most befitting the harlot, slut, whore of Babylon Drive, a simple, dismissive, identity-stripping, sonderless ‘yer wan’.
−She comes into the shop the odd time, Aileen shrugged. It seemed the default way she accompanied every monotone statement. Even the movements themselves were apathetic. Poor thing. Depression.
−Keeps her head down I’d say heh? Fucking disgrace.
−I don’t really pay any heed to her, honestly.
−Better off, better off. Nodding. −And sure won’t be long before she’s packed up and left him too. Another little identifier Gerry and Paula had conjured through their intimate, minute dissections of Evan’s infidelity, him was Aileen’s husband’s new cognomen, palpably italicised.
−You know what those types are like, Paula went on.
−Mmm. At least she doesn’t smoke, so he can’t complain about the smell of fags in the kitchen.
−Ah Jesus, wan of those, Paula tutted, rolling her eyes and reaching forward into empty air. Aileen threw the box of cigarettes to her. Paula took a lighter from her handbag and lit up. Aileen dropped the ashtray down to the table. −Terrible, isn’t it? You’re demonised for having a smoke and a drink but it takes an auld churchgoer to go do something like that. −I don’t know does she go to mass or not.
−I mean him. After all the Sunday masses and the ‘I think I’ll call across to the church’es off him, that he can go and do that to you. You must be so angry. At the hypocrisy.
−Not really. Sure it was a long time coming. Better now than trying to divorce in ten years. And sure, how many sixty year olds do you see getting divorces? Probably would’ve decided to just wait it out ‘til the grave.
−You’re being brave, at least. She wanted to go over and give her some sisterly affection: a pat on the shoulder or something, but she decided to finish her cigarette first.
−Nothing to be brave about. Might go and meet some fella, sure haven’t they this online dating now? Or, y’know, maybe I won’t.
Crippled. Fear of the future as paralytic. Paula knew she’d have to bring this back to the sisters, all of them awaiting news of the eldest eagerly.
−That’s right, that’s right. Would you think of trying therapy?
−Are you being paid to sponsor a therapist or something? No, I wouldn’t have any interest in that sorta thing.
−You shouldn’t have to feel alone.
−I don’t. Mark stays the weekend, and now I’ve the house to myself on weekdays I can actually do what I want.
−Ah, we saw this with daddy, didn’t we? You won’t find the answer in a bottle.
Paula stubbed out the cigarette. She stood up, to approach Aileen, trusting in her familial instincts to guide her towards the right course of action. A hand on the shoulder? A little formal. How about a hug? Good. But then, they’d never had that kind of relationship, not with seven of them, growing up in the same council bungalow. The pair of them, as the eldest sisters, on opposite ends of the bed, Mary and Marie and Bridie squished in the middle, like Matryoshka dolls lined up on the linen.
Paula’s lipstick on the cigarette. She stopped. −Can I use your bathroom?
She totted up her lipstick a little, after spending a few minutes sitting on the toilet, pissing and looking into the little handheld mirror, trying to decide whether to apply a fresh coat or just wipe off completely.
She’d wiped herself, flushed, and applied lipstick, kissing into the bathroom mirror, a solitary, sad toothbrush, yellow-striped, in the cup between the sink taps.
Paula reentered the kitchen. Aileen was dabbing at her eyes with the hand not holding a cigarette. Poor thing. Emotion’s got too much for her. Strong, though, in her ability to deny it.
−Oh my God. Paula rushed over, stopping abruptly about two feet away from Aileen. −You poor thing. What’s wrong?
−Got fucking smoke in my eye.
−You needn’t lie, I won’t think less of you. That bastard. Sending you into a mental state like this—
−No, honestly, it’s just smok—
−And not giving a fuck who he hurts: you, Mark, us, all the broken hearts left behind.
Paula took a second, steeling herself against the marble countertops, taking the breaths that online counselling course had prescribed.
−I know we haven’t had the best relationship, but Aileen. Paula grabbed Aileen’s hands and looked into her red, blinking eyes. −Aileen, I’m here for you.
Paula eventually decided to leave, citing her hatred of driving in the dark, and Aileen led her to the front door. Paula, on the gravel, turned to Aileen.
−It’ll all work out in the end.
Poor thing, Paula ruminated, giving a series of farewell beeps as she started the car, pulled onto Babylon Drive, and turned left at the top of the road. Poor thing. Such a tragedy. Such is life.
John Higgins is an Irish writer living in Korea. His work has been published twice by ‘The Blue Nib’. He has an upcoming publication in ‘Scribble’.