My mother whistles a line of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and looks off into the sunset like a pilgrim contemplating a promised land. The cider is flat, but cool and welcome slipping down my throat. Patsy had always acted as a lopsided buffer between my parents. And also as a prop for young Sister Consolata, the better for my father to fuck her. ‘What bee is in your bonnet, missy?’
‘Daddy has Sister Consolata on my rock under the yew,’ I said, ‘and they’re humping like two auld dogs!’
Patsy slapped my cheek hard then pulled me to her breast. Matthew!’ I roar from my place at the counter. Taxus baccata!’ and dashed back to the gap in the hedge to our orchard. Patsy gripped my shoulders and held me away from her. ‘Her father’s word,’ Mam says, ‘supper. When I was alone there as a child, the crosses made climbing frames for my dolls and oak leaves their beds. Get in here!’
I go back in, top up our cider cups, and sit. ‘Wonderful. My stomach is stuck to my back with the hunger. ‘You might be right,’ I answer; she has overheard my thoughts again it seems. At the end of those, Mam emits a bountiful burp and lays her two hands across her stomach. I wandered, kicking at boggy windfalls to see their brown bruises split. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool loner and I know me and Matthew being here may be hard on her – the having to converse, the need for civility. With a familiarity that tickles me, he heaves her from the chair, grunting histrionically all the while, which makes her laugh. Squinting up at me with one languid eye, the other closed, she says, ‘I hope, Helen, you’re not expecting tea. There’s nothing reasonable to eat in the house.’
‘Did Patsy not get your messages?’ I ask. I looked from my father to Patsy. I take Matthew’s hand in mine and kiss each knuckle in turn; he smiles and pucks me gently with his side. She snarls at the effort and flops back. ‘Christ on a fucking bike, give me patience,’ she said, and pulled the broom handle out and threw it to the floor. ‘What is it, Verona?’ Daddy said, walking forward to Mam. As I approached I heard a moist slap-slap and the same brutish groans that sometimes emanated from my parents’ bedroom. My father was on top, pushing rhythmically and grunting. The giant yew in the corner was my den and I sat on a rock under the protection of its low branches, savouring the dank tranquillity it offered. Dad! ‘Madame Verona,’ he says, and offers her his arm to escort her inside. My mother is unused to the company of outsiders and doesn’t welcome it. We sit on, us three, and we drink, talk and think until the April sun drops behind the orchard and is gone. Never had I heard such odd noises from her before and I didn’t like it at all. ‘That was an absolute feast,’ she says. ‘This is it,’ I say. ‘I’m fit to take the hammer to it at this stage.’
‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Daddy said, and went to the shelf for his toolbox. Helen, get glasses.’
I go through the boot room to the kitchen and, not finding any glassware in the press, I pluck two cups from the draining board; they are, of course, hennaed with tannin but I hope Matthew won’t mind. I didn’t realise at first that it was Consolata – her head was bare – all I saw was a person with straw coloured hair, like my own but cropped, draped backwards over my rock. But she does miss Daddy, in her own way, despite everything. How will you manage?’
‘I’m alive, amn’t I?’ She leans over and knocks her mug against Matthew’s. ‘We brought oysters,’ Matthew says, after a silence that we all feel. ‘The nun apples are even sweeter since your father died,’ she says. She has taken to her role as singleton, as unsentimental widow, with an inert joy; she seems determined to live her life now in unfettered nonchalance. Matthew is perched on the back step and I sit beside him. He cajoled Patsy like a snake charmer and she sucked it up. I always loved the graveyard’s peace as much as the rumble of disquiet I sensed from the women interred under the soil. I ran to the barn, bubbling with shame and rage. She stands over Matthew and me and examines us. ‘Why so dainty?’ I ask. ‘It’s not like you to bake. If Matthew and I stay together, will I always want to coil up on his chest after sex? Don’t dare repeat it. To make a fuss about Easter.’
‘With Patsy out from under my feet I can get up to all sorts,’ she says. ‘Helen!’ Mam’s shout comes loud into the yard. I woke Matthew when dawn fingered its way into my room, wanting to make love, but he could only keep his eyes open for a moment so I rolled away and got up, the bed groaning as if disinclined to let me go. But, when he was gone, it was all too much for Mam and the place deteriorated until she was forced to close. ‘Have a sup of cider, Matthew, I made it myself. Mam is slumped in an ancient deck chair in the yard and she looks undone. I stand to watch shadows gather over the graveyard and get an urge to go and walk the land around the plots. My mouth drips in anticipation of the plump, briny meat. And will he hold me all night, pursuing me across the sheets when I try to ease away? The kitchen is cool after the heat of the yard but the candle flames and lofty ceiling make a welcome theatre of the room. When we’ve had six each, Matthew retrieves the rest of the oysters we brought from the ice-box and we eat on. ‘I am,’ Matthew says. My mother sips her cider and belches quietly between each draught. Then, mindful of Matthew, I remember that not all families communicate by shouting and go to the back door. Now I make my way through the black crosses to the yew tree; it looks, at once, larger and smaller than it did when I made it my den. And we sit, the three of us, and we talk about those who are buried and those who are yet to be born, and so much more besides. I hope you’re ready for this one.’ She nods at me. Why would she let him put his tongue on her neck like that and kiss her?
I had been sent to look for Daddy in the orchard; there was something jammed in the apple scratter. Not the ugly one.’
I tut. I glimpse the serried clutter of black crosses in the field beyond the hedge – the simple graves belonging to the convent next door. ‘And I fired Patsy.’
‘Ah, Mam, not again. Every season had its chores and Daddy meant to see we all took part in them, the better to produce the sweetest fruit in County Dublin.
Image © Garrett Coakley I was a quiet child, silent often, and this was taken for belligerence, by my father, by Patsy. He begrudged the young – me – their very youth, as he got older. The sister’s breath came in delighted gasps until she focussed on me, then she bucked her head upwards and twisted her body in my direction. I wove through the crosses, touching their tips to greet the dead sisters below. I ran up through the trees towards the house and straight into the arms of Patsy who had been sent to look for my father and me. Her family set up my parents with the house and its land before they married and Daddy made a good go of the business. I looked in a lacklustre way for my father’s outline among the trees but, not being able to see him, I slipped instead into the graveyard to confer with the dead. Matthew cuts his from the shell and lifts it to his mouth with a fork. She didn’t talk much but she always admired my dolls and taught me little things about nature. Patsy’s loyalty to my father was fierce, but it was my mother she was left with. ‘I made a simnel cake,’ my mother says. He’s too often mentioned, too frequently summoned like a wisp of necessary air. Whatever that might be.’ My mother raises her mug to Matthew and me. ‘This is the calm way this house should be occupied,’ I say. ‘Master Matthew,’ she replies and takes it. My father would have baulked at our inertia, even today; though he was basted in religion, he didn’t approve of holy days. I was panting and outraged. I go to the old sink, heave my mother’s demijohn of cider out of its water bath, and pour. ‘The portrait of your father. ‘Aaaah,’ I say. My father’s hands moved under her habit and he licked and bit at her neck in great consuming lunges. She flaps her hand. They take their places and I nip back outside for the demijohn and mugs. Patsy looked at me and mouthed a ‘No’. They look elemental against the blue china, their fluted shells like pastry made of shale. Mam left me be. Then the head bent further back and I saw who it was, saw the lips that said my hair was pretty as she combed it, the same mouth that told me the yew tree was toxic and to be careful under its cover. I’ve been uptight about this visit, worried that by meeting Mam, and being in the house, he’ll see into me in a way I won’t welcome. Do you hear me?’
I nodded and she pushed me away from her and set off down the orchard calling my father’s name. I talked to them, wandering from cross to cross, to lie on the grass above where they lay, my face to the sky. ‘God will strike you dead if you ever say that again. For the soul. I stand and survey the grounds, the vapoury mist, the crosses, the trees, and I’m lachrymosely grateful that the whole lot hasn’t been lost under a housing estate. Mam tries to rock herself out of the deck chair on a series of swings. His glance didn’t meet mine but the hum of his guilt flew into the barn with him and settled in the rafters above all our heads. She liked to plait my hair and tell me things and, sometimes, I let her. Until the autumn I turned twelve that rock acted as chair and table and thinking-spot. I eyed her and swallowed the words that scrambled in my gut, itching to be said. ‘Sure, she’s useless.’
‘Mam,’ I say, ‘this is Matthew.’ He steps forward to be inspected, and my mother offers only a salute; the uncharacteristic spring heat seems to do away with her need for words.
‘Consolata’ is taken from Nuala O’Connor’s new collection of stories, Joyride to Jupiter; available from New Island Books. Matthew is relaxed, loading his plate as solemnly as a priest at his rituals; he looks at home and that pleases me. My father continued his lunging movements and I whimpered when I realised it was my friend beneath him. Bless your future.’ She holds her mug and plate aloft like offerings. ‘Did you?’ I say, surprised by this unusual marking of the occasion. I had thought I was dying. ‘Helen! Mam came over to me. My mother was poking a broom handle into the scratter. ‘That yoke,’ Mam said, pointing at the scratter. ‘Sláinte agus táinte, young Matthew. ‘Hell! Dada!’ but I kept my voice low, preferring to eke out the moments that I was free from the endless pressing of apples. ‘So, Patsy’s gone again. ‘Eat this cake and drink this cider.’
So we do. I was drawn to Consolata by her silence and yet here she was, invoking God, shout-whispering my father’s name, whining like a feral cat. Where did you get to?’
‘Did you find him?’ I shook my head. Hello to you, Sister Rosario Maria.’
I headed to the yew tree to retrieve a book left there the day before. ‘Supper, no less,’ Matthew says, and he and my mother laugh conspiratorially, as if at some marvellous joke. ‘The food is ready,’ I say, polite as a maid. She hugged me close and dropped her mouth to my ear. His balled fists held him up, and the fair head bounced and incanted, and Daddy leaned down on each thrust and kissed the face below him. It was she who explained periods to me when she found me on my rock examining a brackish stain on the crotch of my knickers. To anyone. She has probably sat here all day. I wasn’t frightened of her as I was of them. I scrub the oysters in the sink and arrange them on a platter. Daddy and Patsy appeared in the barn doorway, both out of breath, both pantomiming calm. The last supper, a day late.’ She chuckles. She seemed old to me, unsexed by the veil, but she was younger than the other nuns in spirit, as much as in age. ‘A quiet life is good for the bones. ‘What’ve you been up to, Hell? Despite his overbearance, despite his lumpen shape, women always liked Daddy. ‘Yep, just me and the house now,’ she says, as if catching my thoughts. Women of his own generation, like Patsy, were his preferred companions because they knew how to acquiesce. He liked to gift crates of Egremont Russets, the sweetest of all his fruit, to the sisters; we always called Egremonts ‘nun apples’ at home. I quiver and gooseflesh stipples my arms, despite the heat that drapes the yard. What possessed her to let him grind at her like an animal in heat? I rub my head and groan. I put tea lights in saucers along the table, cut lemons into wedges, and butter some brown bread. ‘What’s your name and what did you die of?’ I asked, and I fully fancied that I received answers. ‘You look right together,’ she says. He would like the gothic look of the wraiths that will soon evaporate to leave a corpulent dew on the grass that will take hours to dry out. Mam is readying her shucking tool and Matthew is crushing a lemon wedge. Hell! She may be having a harder time than she lets on letting go of him. And while we talk I think about my father, about what his life meant and his death and whether I will see him again in some dimension I don’t yet understand, and if he’ll explain himself to me. He shrugs and pops the meat onto his tongue, but he slurps the next one straight from the shell. His annoyance at perceived laziness could be spectacular at times and I spent my young life on edge, ready to ward off his distress if he found me idle when the orchard was busy. Matthew stands and my mother holds up her hands to him. The ecology of this place is sewn into me and I know how every season affects it: the stark of winter, this springy soak-and-grow, summer’s glorious greens, autumnal mulch. ‘I wasn’t bothering anyone,’ I said. We had continued to drink into the early hours and I slept little. I drive up the avenue and the trees dip low over the car, conjuring my childhood; I’m glad to see them so full and free. ‘Will we have supper now?’ I ask. What did she try to appropriate this time?’ I ask. I slip under its umbrella of branches and see that my rock is still there.
Scarfs of mist hang over the graveyard and I wish I’d brought my phone for pictures to show to Matthew, who is still asleep in my old bedroom. Every so often I would remember my mission and call out ‘Daddy! My tongue is tart-sweet and my eye sockets are taut, pulled down towards my stomach which rises to meet the tension in my forehead on a horrible comingle of cider and oysters. ‘Amn’t I always right?’ she murmurs. I look out over the graveyard and wave my hand at the crosses, resolving to visit the dead sisters in the morning. I turn the shell-lip to my lips, slide the oyster into my mouth and massage it briefly with my teeth; I savour its brawny goodness in my throat and the dance of sea salt on my tongue. I look at her now and it’s clear to me that she has thrown off Daddy like a shackle, that without him – and without Patsy too – she has found a way to be somewhat content. How could Sister Consolata want to be better friends with my father than with me? The heat that radiates from Matthew’s body, beside me on the step, brings back our morning in my bed: the slick, fierce weight of him on top of me, the sweet length of him inside me, his soft grunts and smiles. She sits, hand adangle above a mug of homemade cider, as if some mighty bird is about to swoop down and whisk it up into the clouds. Mam, worried it was a mouse that would cause contamination, had to stop pulping apples, and she sent me down among the trees to shout for my father, the only one with the knack to clear the scratter’s innards. ‘Bless your youth. Daddy always said our apples were blessed because the order lived beside us. I cut the muscle and raise the shell, being careful not to spill the salty juice, and offer a hasty ‘Bon appétit’ to the others. ‘The yew’s name, taxus baccata, means “toxic berry”,’ Consolata had said. He leans across me to look through the windscreen. The sun’s heat sends my mind adrift. Daddy was one of those men who embraced the arrogance of his generation, he was never afraid to use a domineering charisma in order to get his way. I park the car by the front of the house and turn to Matthew. ‘And this is Verona, my mother.’
‘It’s lovely to meet you, Verona.’ Mam sips her cider and nods, her disinterest interesting to me because I’ve been harassed in the past about boyfriends, my mother snuffling after me like a resolute badger, wanting to meet them. I jumped from the ground, shouted, ‘Taxus baccata! ‘Whoa, Helen, whoa!’ she roared and grabbed me to her. ‘She was below in the orchard, missus,’ Patsy said, ‘idle as a cat.’
‘As long as you weren’t beyond the hedge, nun-bothering,’ Mam said, pulling me to her side by my shoulder. Yes.’
I sip the cold, grassy cider, look at Matthew and Mam, and feel content. ‘And, Helen, you must never eat its berries, bright and soft though they are.’
I watched Sister Consolata’s eyes open and they were glossy and large. Sister Bartholomew: ‘Throat cancer.’
Sister Consolata: ‘A broken heart.’
Sister Rosario Maria: ‘Old age.’
Consolata was placid, an undemanding companion. I shuck my first oyster and the pop when I turn the knife under the top-shell makes me shudder. ‘Of course you did,’ Mam says. ‘Mmmm,’ I sigh, and set to work on another. I gaze across the yard and wonder if the ferocity of new love can ever last. The orchard shut down after he died and, though my mother can’t quite believe she has no money anymore, she doesn’t care much either. I get up and go through the house to the car, pull the icebox from the boot and haul it to the kitchen. But I got rid of her, too.’
‘She’ll be back, I suppose.’
Mam shrugs and grins. The kitchen has its familiar rotten-onion, stale-biscuit smell and I wonder about bringing Matthew into the house, about what he’ll make of its chaos of bric-a-brac and sail-like cobwebs, its peculiar air. ‘It is, I suppose.’
We go around the back, the front door being for high days only, which Good Friday, in our family, is not. I bent over to make myself small and didn’t lift the branch canopy but dipped under it to lie on the ground. In five years, say, will I still relish the scatter of hair in the small of his back that I stroke like a pet while he sleeps? Their marriage didn’t age well, there was a certain disgust for each other in all actions towards the end.
We sit out in the yard again after a lunch of cheese and tomatoes and we cut Mam’s simnel cake, its top a blaze of marzipan, dotted with sugar-shelled eggs. Young Sister Consolata, though, often managed to waylay me; she was tiny and fresh, not at all like the other nuns. ‘It’s fucking huge.’
I look at the lofty Queen Anne-ish facade rising up over three floors. ‘Ready etcetera.’
He grins and I’m grateful for his contained ease. ‘Mam! You look half mad.’ She laughed and knocked muck off my knees with one palm. Well, she is a woman who thrives alone so perhaps she is better off. ‘Ah, supper. The nuns’ plot was my playground as a girl but I would dash, wary, back to our orchard if I glimpsed a grey habit. My mother, being contrary, didn’t see fit to kow-tow to him. That man always had a great idea of himself.’
‘You miss him,’ I say, and she snorts a denial. I come out the back door to the yard and stand to watch the sun drift west. ‘Good day, Sister Bartholomew. ‘You should’ve let her have it.’