This is my first attempt at #Friday Flash – an initiative which encourages writers to post their fiction for others to read and comment on. I have been meaning to do it for about a month now and have realised that if I don’t just take the plunge today, I may never do so!
I hope you enjoy reading the piece and if you feel like leaving a little comment, I’d be delighted.
Siobhán has always remembered the first time she saw her mother cry. She was about three and it must have been winter because there was a fire going in the kitchen.
She remembers looking up in alarm at the raised pitch and the snuffly sounds that her mammy was making. She remembers, too, looking in astonishment as Josie reached for the yellow and white tea-towel that hung on the back of the chair to dry her eyes with.
Siobhán was astonished because, to the best of her knowledge, mammies didn’t cry. Only little girls like Siobhán cried. Brian, who would have been about six, wouldn’t look at Mammy. He was opposite Siobhán on the rug in front of the fire. His face wore a mixture of embarrassment and guilt as his eyes warned Siobhán not to be looking at Mammy. Although it didn’t register with her at the time, Siobhán knew, from the look on Brian’s face, that he had seen Mammy crying before.
Siobhán doesn’t remember what happened after that. She thinks her daddy was shouting, and he probably was because Frank Flaherty always seemed to be shouting at someone for something. Or nothing.
Frank was a difficult man. He’d grown up in the Curragh. That flat, flat place in the middle of nowhere where fine racehorses were bred for rich Sheikhs. Apart from stud farms, the Curragh was famous for two things – sheep and soldiers. Naturally, this gave rise to plenty of crude jokes. And Frank Flaherty was a crude, cruel man both in his speech and his manner.
Frank’s wife and children all thought they loved him. They didn’t. They were terrified of him. It would be years before they figured that out, though.
Now, twenty-six years after that first time, Siobhán listened again to her mother crying. She was equally bewildered by it this time as she had been that first time – even though she wasn’t in the same room watching in amazement as the tears coursed down Josie’s face.
Siobhán felt impatience bubble up inside her, but managed to quell it before it frothed up her throat, out her mouth and down the phone-line.
‘Mam,’ she said quietly. ‘Why are you crying? Surely you’re not grieving for him?’
‘No,’ Josie answered, her voice thick with tears. ‘I think it must be the shock. You know – even though I had a barring order, I used to worry that he’d come back and cause trouble for me – for us, I mean.’ Josie amended her statement quickly. ‘Now he’s gone. I suppose I’m just relieved.’
‘Are you going to the funeral?’ Siobhán enquired.
‘I don’t know,’ her mother answered, struggling to get her tears under control. ‘Do you think I should?’
Siobhán gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes.
‘It’s up to you, Mam. It’s whatever you want to do that matters.’
‘I suppose I’ll be expected to,’ Josie continued as though her daughter had never spoken.
Doing her best to be gentle, Siobhán tried again.
‘Mam, it’s up to you. Do you what you want to do – not what you think you should.’ Even as she spoke the words, she knew they were wasted on her mother. Josie spent her life trying to figure out what other people expected of her and then trying to fulfil their expectations.
‘Are you going?’ Josie asked.
‘Well, that’s a matter for yourself,’ Josie sniffed, her tears finally under control.
‘I don’t see the point in my going to be honest.’
‘Yes, you were always honest, Siobhán,’ her mother’s tone was snitty.
‘Even if you didn’t always believe me,’ Siobhán screamed at her silently.
Five minutes later, the two women had finished their conversation. Siobhán went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of red wine. If she’d had champagne, she’d have opened that instead. Siobhán thought about her old man. Then she tried to stop. She was done with that, done with remembering his foul mouth, his rudeness, his brutality.
In the living room, Siobhán sat on the floor, her back against the cream-coloured sofa. She clicked on the television and Oprah at her incredulous best filled the room. Siobhán sipped her wine. It was warm and slightly peppery. Frank, she remembered, had been a Pioneer. That peculiar breed of Irish teetotaller who offers up their abstinence as penance for the sins of those who drank. Siobhán snorted out loud at the hypocrisy. Damn! She cursed herself. What was she doing thinking about him? Quickly, she tried to change the topic in her head, tried to drag her awareness back to Oprah.
But it was no good. Even after all this time, she could still hear the way his breath whistled down the nose he’d broken when he was sixteen, and which had never set properly. She could smell the stink of stale cigarettes that came off him, off his clothes, off his hands, off the fuggy air around him. Major. That had been his brand. A real hard man’s cigarette.
She could hear his voice, issuing commands, reminding his children that they were his slaves and they existed purely to do his bidding. Rebellion was dealt with swiftly and absolutely. The rebel would think long and hard before trying to stand up for him – or her – self again. ‘Defying’ as Frank called it.
Then, there came a day when Frank’s abuse could no longer be hidden. The head nun at school called the parish priest. He called the Gardaí. They called a social worker. People were in and out of the house. Josie cried. Frank swore and shouted. Siobhán felt as though her insides were frozen solid.
‘So this is what it feels like to be dead,’ she thought.
Except she knew she wasn’t dead because there was life inside her.
She was fifteen.
‘You broke up this family – and don’t you ever forget it,’ Josie had yelled in her face, her Kildare accent softening her ‘ts’ so that is sounded like ‘forgesh ish’.
Siobhán liked to think she had forgiven her mother, but she knew she would never forget.
For years, Siobhán had thought about this day. Waited for it. Imagined herself going back to Ireland and standing up at the funeral to deliver his eulogy. Except that hers would be a eulogy with a difference. It would be honest. She would speak the truth about Frank. The truth they all knew, the truth that most of them denied. After a while, she’d decided against going back for the funeral at all. Frank had been dead to her for a long, long time and going home to watch him be lowered into a hole in the ground wasn’t worth the airfare. Not even on Ryanair.
The phone rang. It was her brother, Rory.
‘Have you heard?’
‘You going to the funeral?’
‘No. Are you?’
‘Am I fuck!’
There was a slight pause before Rory spoke again.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Of course I am,’ Siobhán replied as light-heartedly as she could.
‘How’s Seán? And the Big Fella?’
‘Grand. They’re both fine, thanks. How’s Fiona?’
‘Yeah. She’s fine.’
‘Good. Tell her I was asking for her.’
Another pause. Broken again by Rory.
‘Right. Well, I’ll let you go, so.’
‘Okay. Thanks for ringing.’
The clock in the kitchen declared the hour with an electronic pip. Siobhán started to think about what to do for the dinner. Seán would be in from football practice any minute. She decided to wait and ask him what he wanted. At fourteen, he was getting finicky about what he would and wouldn’t eat.
The phone rang again. Siobhán groaned and wondered which of her siblings it was this time. It was none of them. It was Michael. He sounded tired as he told her that it would be another hour before he was home and suggested that they eat without him. She didn’t tell him that Frank was dead. There was no point. Not until he got home anyway.
She smiled as she remembered the night, eight years previously, when she had bumped – almost literally – into Michael. She had been startled and had gasped in fear. He had thought it was because he was Black. It took a while before he realised it was because he was a man. They worked at the same hospital and saw a lot of each other at work. Eventually, Michael had persuaded her to see him outside of work. Over the months that followed, she’d told him about herself. About Seán. He had accepted her and her son without reservation. Siobhán could no longer imagine life without him. She smiled as the thought of him warmed her more than the wine had.
The door opened and Seán clumped in. Siobhán looked at him and her heart swelled. She was so proud of him. He was bright and his kindness and good humour ensured that he was popular. Siobhán knew she was biased, but she thought he was gorgeous; green-eyes and skin tanned from the amount of time he spent outdoors. Most striking, though, was his copper-coloured hair. The same colour as her own. The same colour as her father’s. The same colour as his father’s.