by Claire Jones
‘Aunty Fran’s dead!’ Shelagh burst through the sitting room door. Five faces bobbed out of the gloom to meet hers. One remained in shadow. She scanned our anxious expressions, enjoying the limelight. The stage was hers for the next few minutes. Shelagh pulled at her scarf and dumped it along with its matching mittens on the back of the sofa. I saw Mammy’s eyes dart to and then away from the cast-off clothing as she reined in her urge to demand tidiness. Shelagh saw them too and laid her coat over one arm. She shuffled the grocery bag in her open hand.
‘Uncy Padraig found her this morning. She was lying on the floor, behind the bed, hidden. He only noticed her because the bed hadn’t been made.’ Shelagh’s fingers fiddled into the still-warmth of her coat. She wasn’t getting the most out of this story and she knew it. Her eyes skimmed us and noted, as we all did, that Mammy was still looking at the book on her lap. ‘They said …’
‘Turn the light on, please Shelagh.’
‘Just the little ones, we don’t need the main one on.’ Mammy’s jaw clenched in tiny pulses as she waited for Shelagh to do as she was told. Shelagh toggled the brass nipple of the light switch and turned the wall lights on. The sitting room flooded with weak light and we glanced around at each other, Shelagh’s reign over for the time being.
Colm and Mairead were hunched around the leather pouffe, half a deck of cards in each of their hands, their game of Strip Jack Naked temporarily suspended. Daniel held a book in his lap, like Mam, his finger turned white saving his place. Jack and I sat on the rug, our silent-squabble over a set of chessmen paused. I always liked to be the black set, although I didn’t admit it. I enjoyed the despicable, black-heartedness of them and playing out their gruesome death throes. I would whisper ‘I’m a dirty proddy bastard’ to Jack, who’d reply in almost silent sibilance ‘then you’ll die like a dog, you bastard’. It was our favourite word.
As we looked around the room, we prodded with our eyes, trying to get each other to say it. Eventually, Mairead cracked. ‘How?’ Mammy tutted. But not loud enough to signal us to stop.
‘Mrs Egan said the paramedics brought her out. She said…’ Shelagh leant closer, revelling in it, ‘Aunty Fran took her own life.’ Spotlight full and firmly on her. She’d managed it. We gasped, a collective reward for Shelagh. Trust her to turn a boring trip to the shops into a tale of mortal sin. I watched Mammy suck in her lips. She held them gently in between her teeth, still looking into her book but not breathing. She was waiting for Shelagh to go on.
‘Pills, apparently.’ Shelagh’s nonchalance was deathly annoying. She gathered up her scarf and mittens, and hefted the grocery bag into her other hand. ‘Straight to hell, where she deserves.’
Mammy was upon her like a fox to chickens. Before any of us knew it, Shelagh was sporting a bright red imprint of Mammy’s hand all across her left cheek. Her right coloured in shame, to join its twin. Mammy thundered like the voice of God himself, ‘Don’t you dare speak like that in my house, Shelagh Marie Fitzpatrick! If I hear one more word from you on the subject of Frances and Padraig McCann I will fetch down your father’s belt and he will hear you crying from his grave! Do you understand me?’
Shelagh was crouched against the door frame, once more smaller than our Mammy. Her eyes were swimming with tears. ‘Yes, Mammy, I’m sorry. I just thought…’ Shelagh stopped herself as Daniel stood up from the sofa.
‘Go on and put away the shopping, Shelagh’ he moved towards them both. Already the man of the house at fifteen, his words slipped between them and the spell was broken. ‘Put the kettle on while you’re there’, he said. Mammy stepped back from the door, allowing Shelagh to slip out. She put her hands up to her face and we saw her back rise with a deep breath. Daniel reached over to touch Mammy’s shoulder and she felt for his hand with hers. In the dim light we all waited for Mammy to cry. Aunty Fran had been Mammy’s sister after all, before the trouble. Before Mammy had slammed through the house, Daddy in tow, saying things like ‘No sister of mine’. We’d heard, after all, that blood is thicker than water.
In the corner, Mammy turned. She looked up to Daniel. ‘I’d best get dinner on,’ she said.
Claire Jones lives in Birmingham with her husband and children. She writes once the washing is done.