It’s not all his fault. She knows that. She should have said something earlier. Maybe before the children were born. Or before they got married. She was just so desperate to get away. Maybe she should have taken better care of her hair. Or her face. Or just been more like her sister, Kate. Kate who lived in New York City with another woman. Kate who told her not to marry Seán. Kate who wore jeans long before women wearing jeans became fashionable. Or acceptable. Kate who hadn’t been home since their mother’s funeral. Kate. Sounds from the neighbourhood float in through the open window. A dog barks insistently; the steady shriek of a car alarm slices the air. The high-pitched squeals of children anticipating the summer holidays. The dying rays of the sun pour in through the kitchen window, leaving her dull-headed and heavy with heat.
“I was just thinking about our honeymoon,” she answers lightly. “Eleven years ago tomorrow.” He grunts in response, absorbed by the weather forecast flashing across the small screen sitting on the kitchen counter.
“Fucking rain tomorrow. I promised Ma I’d look at her roof. Fucking typical!”
Something catches Clare’s eye and she glances towards the double doors of the front room. She stiffens when she sees Grace’s nose pressed against the glass pane in the doors. She is mouthing something. Seán is still talking, his voice getting louder as he stabs at the gravy on his plate with a piece of white bread. While his head is bent to his plate, Clare holds her daughter’s face with her eyes, warning her with a slight shake of her head. She sees Grace moving towards the door, her small hand lifting to open it. Beads of sweat form above Clare’s upper lip. She can taste it. Her mouth is dry. Seán doesn’t seem to notice.
“Is there any more?” he asks, holding his plate out to her. She jumps up from the table, her elbow sending her fork and spoon skidding off the edge. She tries to catch them but they slip past her hand and fall onto the tiled floor, rattling and rolling. Seán puts his hands against his ears, colour staining his face, rising from his neck.
“Jesus, Clare, you’re so fucking clumsy!”
“Sorry, Seán, they got away from me there.” She is at the counter now, heaping his plate with seconds. She looks over to the door and Grace is still there, at the window, as still as a statue. Clare puts the plate carefully in front of Seán and sits back down at the table. She picks up her wineglass, smiling at him. But Grace is still coming into the room, moving towards them, making no sound. She has her worried face on and doesn’t look at her father. She moves over to Clare, bending her head to whisper to her.
“I’ll talk to you later, Grace,” Clare says in a low voice.
“After dinner, OK?”
“What does she want now?” Seán is scratching the back of his neck furiously. She can hear his wide, thick nails rasp against his skin. He swats an imaginary fly away from his head and breathes out heavily through his nose, like a horse.
“Don’t worry, Seán – Grace can talk to me later, OK?”
“Christ, can a man not have his dinner in peace?” Still Grace doesn’t move. She speaks instead.
“Ma, I need twenty euro for school tomorrow. It’s for our school tour.” Grace’s voice is an urgent whisper and Clare curses herself for not paying enough attention when Grace spoke anxiously about the school tour last week.
“Grace, I’ll sort you out later, OK? Just let your father have his dinner.” Clare is pushing the girl away from her towards the front room.
“What the fuck are you whispering about now? Can a man have no peace in his own house after a hard day’s work?” Seán scrapes his chair away from the table, his knife raised.
Clare’s hand jerks, the back of it hitting against the wineglass beside her plate. The glass teeters unsteadily on its stem and wine sloshes against the edges. For a moment Clare thinks it might be OK. Then, as if in slow motion, the glass tips too far and falls on its side before it rolls and rolls to the edge of the table. The sound of the glass shattering against the tiles is like a cat howling in the night. Blood-red stains seep through the impossible whiteness of the linen tablecloth and drip noiselessly onto the floor. A puddle of wine gathers in her lap. She can taste flecks of it on her lips.
Seán is on his feet, moving towards her. She sees his lips moving, spittle gathering in the corners of his mouth as he strains to contain his rage. He can’t contain it. She knows that. She hears nothing. She feels relief. She is giddy with it. The noise of the world rushes back at her and she is up, pushing her chair back, skidding on a puddle of red wine, nearly falling. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see her young daughter cowering against the wall, watching them. Again.
The doorbell rings and for a moment, neither of them can place the sound. It sounds ridiculous, like an icecream van in the desert. Clare and Seán freeze, his fist raised, her hands in front of her, palms facing him, like a lollipop lady, halting traffic. She holds him with her eyes and lowers her hands slowly. The bell rings again, more insistently this time.
Still Grace stands there, saying nothing. Her stillness is like a sound moving between them.
“Seán, the door,” she whispers breathlessly as if she’s been running up a hill for the longest time. Seán blinks his eyes several times, looking around him as if wondering where he is. Clare recognises the look and waits. His fist unclenches and lowers. He moves back from her, scrabbling at the waistband of his jeans, hoisting them up over his hips. He pulls his hand down the length of his face, straightening his features. Grace can move now. She closes the door of the sitting room behind her.
“I’ll get it,” he says.
His voice is quiet now. The voice she remembered from years before. The voice of the man she thought would save her from her father’s house. The voice he always uses afterwards. When he’s sorry. He uses the backs of the chairs to support him as he moves towards the door.
She sits again, her legs trembling.
It’s his mother. She sometimes calls at this time of the day. When he’s not home, she frets about him working too hard, just like his father before him. When she’s in the mood, she releases her tight curls from a wool hat and unwinds an endless scarf from around her thin neck revealing folds of jaded skin that sag under her jaw. Then she’ll accept a cup of tea – leave the tea bag in, love, please – heaped with sugar and two Fig Roll biscuits.
When she is settled in her chair and the steam from the tea has lent a pale flush to her cheeks, she’ll tell Clare kindly stories of Seán as a youngster. Clare has heard these stories many times but she never gets tired of listening to the comforting ramblings of the old lady.
Seán is all she has left. Her husband died years ago. It is a widely known fact that he died from cirrhosis of the liver but this is never acknowledged by the remaining members of the family. His two daughters took the boat when they were barely out of their teens and little has been heard of them since. His mother never mentions them.
“Look who’s here!” Seán bellows with a wide smile that she can see from the kitchen. He gently escorts his mother down the hallway towards the kitchen. The pair of them stand under the arch of the doorway, arms around each other, wide smiles like boats across their faces.
Clare stands up abruptly and feels the wetness of the wine on her legs. She rushes to explain herself, her words falling over each other as she reaches for a cloth.
“Clare, love, don’t worry. I’ll clean that up.” It is Seán speaking and she can hear the confusion in his voice, wondering how they ended up like this. His face is stained with shame and a part of her feels sorry for him. Mostly, she just wishes things were different.
“Please, Mrs Murray, sit down.” Clare ushers her mother-in-law to a high-backed chair. “Seán, pour your mother a glass of wine and I’ll go and change.” As she ascends the narrow staircase, Clare can hear the old lady feebly protesting against the glass of wine that she will sip for the next two hours. When she gets near the top, she sits on a stair, the wine cold now against her thighs. When she takes her trousers off, she will soak them in cold water with a little salt. She can hear Mrs Murray open the door into the front room, hoping for her grandchildren. The children will be brought out from the front room by Seán and greedily admired and fussed over by their only living grandparent. Soft cheeks will be pinched; round bellies will be tickled. Grace will hang her head and hide behind her hair. Oisín will settle himself in the warm bulk of his grandmother’s lap, hoping for sweets which will inevitably be produced.
Clare will make good strong coffee which Seán will obediently drink under his mother’s adoring eyes. The family will collectively breathe in and breathe out. Clare will hug her long arms about her thin body, her knees tucked under her chin. Mrs Murray will repeat herself again and again and Clare and Grace will catch each other’s eyes and share a smile that no one else can see. When Clare’s hammering heart slows to a steady dull thud, she will acknowledge that there will be peace in this house tonight. She will hug Mrs Murray close when she leaves and bid her goodnight and a silent thank-you. She will leave Seán to fall asleep in front of the telly in the front room, sprawled on the couch. She will put her children to bed, tucking the bedclothes so tightly around them they can barely move. She will hold them close to her and shut her eyes and breathe in the warm, sweet smell of them. She will go to bed and set her alarm for 7.45 a.m. She will hear the door being wrenched open and banging shut behind him.