This short story of mine was highly commended in the 2019 An Post Irish Books Awards in the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year category but the journal that originally published it, The Nottingham Review, is no longer online. I’m posting it here for posterity.
By Clare O’Dea
Death was not all bad. Not if you liked the business side, as Nuala did. Everyone had complimented her on the Mass. A good Mass doesn’t come together by itself and it was gratifying that people appreciated that. The hotel was a good choice too, a lovely function room all to themselves with acres of carpet, and the bathroom fittings done in gold like something from a palace. No one could say she hadn’t done Auntie Nim proud.
A week later, everything had returned to its proper order, minus the Tuesday visit to Auntie Nim in St. Catherine’s, and Nuala was ready to deal with Marty. She arranged the kitchen table in such a way that her brother would have to take her seriously. The laptop was open and beside it lay a spiral notebook and a single pen. A small stack of photo albums with frayed cardboard covers was placed to her right, out of his reach.
At the sound of wheels crunching gravel, Nuala clicked on the kettle and went into the hall to check her hair. ‘A woman’s hair is her glory,’ Auntie Nim used to say, clearly implying that her own hair was in some way remarkable. Too many compliments as a young woman no doubt. Not that Auntie Nim wasn’t generous in doling out the praise herself, especially to Nuala when she was growing up. Any excuse to look for a hug.
Marty’s bulky shape blocked the light from coming through the glass panels of the door. Why did he have to stand so close? She had a porch for goodness sake. Nuala let him in and accepted a duty kiss on the cheek. Not that awful tweed jacket again. The disheveled look went with the job in the university, apparently.
Nuala took care of serving the tea quickly, the secret being pre-boiling of the kettle, and within minutes they were ready to get to work.
“Let’s start with the dates,” Nuala began, “and you correct me if I’m wrong. Born 1919, father a merchant sailor, mother just a mother I suppose.”
“Ah,” Marty said, leaning back in his chair, “she always spoke fondly of her mother. From Cavan originally, you know, she ran a shop out of the house in Carlingford, a small affair in the front room. Nim and the girls helped out. She used to tell us about the weighing scales and the paper bags for the flour and the sugar, remember? There were barrels lined up against the wall, people always dropping in for a chat.”
“We can leave out the mother. She died young, didn’t she?”
Marty nodded. “When Nim was eleven. She stepped into her mother’s shoes. I think we should mention that.”
Nuala paused and wrote ‘1930: mother’s shoes’.
“Then she got the scholarship for secondary school. Put that down.” Marty pointed to the page, but Nuala held the pen steady.
“But she didn’t go.”
“She wasn’t free to go, but she got distinction in the exam. Go on, scholarship, write it down.”
Nuala patted the back of her hair. “This is going to get very boring if we include all the paths not taken. Did you ever read an obituary that mentioned things people didn’t do in their lives?”
“She got the scholarship.” Marty set his cup down a little too roughly on the saucer, splashing tea. Pressing her lips into a disapproving line, Nuala wrote ‘scholarship’.
“Then what?” Nuala asked, keeping her voice even.
“She looked after her sisters, kept house.”
“I’m looking for milestones.” A swirling pattern of interlocking rectangles appeared on the laptop screen, and Nuala tapped the space bar to stop the movement.
Marty was squinting, and it didn’t suit him. “Right, let me see. They would have moved to Dublin in the mid-thirties, and then she got the job doing the wages at the docks.”
“I’m surprised they employed a girl without a proper education.”
Marty straightened in his chair. “She was bright. Started filling the pay packets, soon enough she was calculating from the time sheets. They called her Miss Murtagh.”
“She must have got a lot of unwelcome attention handing out the envelopes to all those men. I’m surprised her father … ”
“Her father was half a world away on some ship most of the time. Nim was very independent, and capable.”
That aggressive tone again.
“Nuala, everything you’ve done. It’s wonderful. People appreciate it. I appreciate it. But this obituary, I mean, I’m the writer in the family. Wouldn’t it be best …”
Nuala straightened her long back. “No, no Marty. I was the one they approached at the afters, remember? I have the woman’s phone number and the email address. You don’t even live in the parish and you’ve never read a newsletter in your life. I know what to write.” She sat back, hands clasped on the table, the pen still lodged in her fingers.
Marty crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on the lamp hanging above the table. He stayed like that while Nuala got up and put a hot drop in the teapot.
“Where were we?” Nuala asked after refilling the cups. “Oh yes. The job in the shipping office, the house in East Wall. The younger sisters grew up, the father died, and then she came to us.”
“When she was thirty-five.”
“Nice for her to move to a better area.”
“Can you pass me one of those albums?” Marty asked, cutting her off. While Marty leafed through the pages, Nuala started to type the first few lines of the obituary. She had just three hundred words, and she had to mention Nim’s duties in the church, and all the trouble after the stroke. Marty really had no idea. Nuala could see the black pages of the photo album turning out of the corner of her eye. There were glimpses of picnic scenes, beaches, people standing in front of castles. As if life were one long Sunday jaunt.
The day Nim came to live with them the house was in a terrible mess. Their mother had been gone for almost a week, and their father, who had started coming home later and later, had taken to spending the evenings in his chair staring at the wall, too furious to speak. Nuala had taken the five shillings her mother had left on the table and was using it to buy bread and cheese for sandwiches. The big pot of beef stew had run out.
Every day that week when she arrived home from school, she hoped Mammy had changed her mind and come back. She would keep her eyes almost closed when she came in the back door, praying that the house had returned to its neat and ordered state. But through her fluttering eyelashes, she saw the breakfast things still sitting by the sink exactly as she had left them, and she had to send more uncried tears down into the centre of herself. The kitchen was cold and gloomy from a day without activity. Marty would push past her and check all the rooms before returning to sit at the table, waiting for her to take charge. On the sixth day, there was no money left and no telling when their father would be home. Nuala crouched down to light the gas fire, and the doorbell rang just as she clicked the pilot light, making her jump. It was Auntie Nim.
That was the end of the struggle to keep them both fed and washed and dressed. But it was also the end of the hope that it had all been a horrible mistake, and the real beginning of their new life without Mammy.
“Nim’s fiancé.” Marty was holding up the album, pointing to a studio photograph of a young man with pale eyes who was smiling tightly, as if to cover bad teeth.
“Well, yes. Another path not taken.” Nuala knew the image well from her regular searches of Auntie Nim’s bedside table in their old house. It was natural for a child to be curious. The photograph was never on display but there it was face-up in the drawer whenever Nuala checked. She hadn’t seen the portrait for years until it turned up in the small box of personal possessions handed over by the nursing home.
“She used to take us to the memorial service for the lost seamen, don’t you remember? That church down on the quays. We should mention him.” Marty’s eyes shone.
Nuala stopped typing and rubbed her temples. “Whatever makes you think we should drag up ancient history? We don’t know anything about that person. So she did a line with a sailor once upon a time. That was long forgotten.”
Nuala liked to see Marty unsure, his mouth hanging open and eyes blinking. It reminded her of the time when she knew better than him, about everything. When he was small he accepted her word without question. She told him Mammy would not like him sitting on Auntie Nim’s lap so he stopped accepting hugs and kisses from her. Auntie Nim was too jolly for them, that was the problem. She even made their father laugh. She made him do more than that. Nuala was a child, but she was not blind. The two of them waiting for her to go to bed so they could have the front room to themselves. That atmosphere.
Marty closed the album and brought his hands together as if in prayer. “There’s something you should know about Nim, Nuala. Not for the obituary but for yourself.”
Nuala sat back and crossed her arms.
“I know about her and Daddy.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, though why it still bothers you that they were close is a mystery to me.”
“Close,” Nuala snorted. “That’s a good one.”
“As I said, that’s not what this is about. After Dad died, Nim and I spent a lot of time together. I’d come home late from my restaurant jobs and she used to wait up for me. You were in London.”
“Nuala, listen please. We talked about you a lot, and the past, all the people who were gone. She made me promise not to tell.”
Nuala did not show Marty out. She sat in the kitchen without raising her eyes from his treacherous teacup until the last of the evening light stole out of the room. By concentrating on that small thing, she was able to find the invisible way back to the kitchen of her childhood, and begin her search. Once again, she roamed the house from room to room, and found it empty. Once again, she did not cry.
Later, when everything was back in its place, Nuala went upstairs with the box from the nursing home. She sat down heavily on her bed and took a hard look at Auntie Nim’s last few possessions. The photograph slipped free and she placed it on her lap. She moved the other objects around – the rosary beads, brooches, a compact mirror – until she found what she was looking for.
It was a Russian lacquer box, familiar to Nuala from her childhood home. On the lid was a hand-painted image of two swans flying high above a village where tiny figures and houses could be made out below. Anywhere Auntie Nim had ever lived, this black box had been on her bedside table. It was a present from the famous fiancée, Michael; Nuala remembered her saying he bought it in Archangelsk many years ago. Nuala had even made up some adventure stories about him when she was small, impressed by Auntie Nim’s tales of high seas and strange ports in the north. She peered closely at the photograph. His eyes were so pale. They must have been the lightest blue. Gently, she set the picture aside.
Nuala lifted the lid of the lacquer box she had last opened with the hands of a child. Inside, something she hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. She had taken it for Michael’s hair then, a thought that had vaguely disgusted her. Willing her hands not to tremble, Nuala took the lock of fine blonde hair tied with a faded ribbon and held it closer to the light. A baby curl for sure, her own.