Authors: Deirdre Madden
for my mother, Mary Madden,
and my sister, Angela Madden,
Home was a huge sky; it was flat fields of poor land fringed with hawthorn and alder. It was birds in flight; it was columns of midges like smoke in a summer dusk. It was grey water; it was a mad wind; it was a solid stone house where the silence was uncanny.
Cate was going home.
She woke early this morning. Not surprisingly, she’d been sleeping badly in recent weeks, and she lay now for more than an hour thinking about her family. She liked to imagine them still asleep, each of the three women lying in the warm darkness of her own room: Helen in her house in Belfast, Sally and her mother at home in the country. Later, when Cate rose and moved about her flat making coffee and preparing her luggage for the journey, she thought of her family waking. Helen would stretch out her hand and switch on the radio, would lie there drowsing and listening to classical music. Sally would go downstairs, and, still in her dressing gown and sleepy-eyed, would stare blankly at the cloudy sky while she waited for the kettle to boil. She would make tea, and bring it upstairs to her mother’s room. It was a ritual every Saturday morning. They would drink the tea together, and quietly talk over the week that was past, and the weekend to come; and today, Cate knew, their main topic of conversation would be her own trip home. They would discuss the meal they would cook for her arrival at lunchtime; and perhaps they would speculate as to why Cate had decided to go home at such short notice; but even allowing for that possibility, it was a comfort to her to think intensely about her mother and sisters.
In the course of the journey from Primrose Hill to Heathrow, she grew increasingly anxious. Once in the departure lounge, she checked in and then paced restlessly by the windows, watching the planes taxi and take off. Turning away, she went into the Ladies and checked her hair and make-up; took out a bottle of
French perfume and sprayed some on her wrists. Usually, looking at herself in the mirror calmed Cate. A quick glance would be enough: the thick, auburn hair, the fine, pale skin and delicate features, the wonderful clothes and jewellery which were far beyond the reach of most people: ‘Whatever you feel,’ she would tell herself, ‘this is what other people see, and this is how they will judge you.’ But lately that trick had been failing to restore her confidence, and it failed today. So she put her finger up to her brow to touch a tiny invisible scar at her hairline. When she was six, she’d run into a hay baler and cut her head so badly that she’d had to go to the hospital for stitches; and it had left a faint mark which had remained with her for the rest of her life. Touching the scar quickly, so that no one ever realised that she was doing it, restored a sense of reality, a sense of who she was, in a way that looking at her own reflection could not.
She went back to the departure lounge, and bought a newspaper. Out of habit, her eyes scanned the shelves, looking for the cover of the fashion magazine for which she worked. After that she bought a cup of coffee, but she didn’t really want it, any more than she wanted the newspaper. She put sugar in the coffee, just to be doing something, and stirred it in, then put the spoon on the saucer and stared at the cup. She was terrified of what they were going to say to her at home. There would be tears, that was for certain, and some of them would be hers. There would be hard words, and she wondered how she was going to cope with that. No matter how much they hurt her, she would have to try not to say anything that she would regret afterwards.
A voice announced that the British Airways flight to Belfast was ready for boarding. Cate stood up.
In the past, she’d felt invincible. It wasn’t that she didn’t think about whether or not disaster might befall her: she did think, and decided that it couldn’t. Her life was charmed. When she was a teenager, she would shelter under trees during thunderstorms, sure that she was safe. A train or a plane couldn’t crash if she was on board. She’d been stunningly beautiful, and she’d known it. For years she believed that she could have absolutely anything she wanted in life. Her family hadn’t been able to understand where it came from, this … this – confidence, she’d called it
then. Arrogance, she called it now. It had left her that night in October over two years ago, when Sally rang and told her what had happened. As soon as she had finished talking she’d broken the connection on the phone with the tips of her fingers while reaching into her handbag with her other hand for her credit card and Filofax. She’d called British Airways and quickly and efficiently booked a seat on the last flight to Belfast. Then she’d thought: who else should I ring? She had friends in London, good friends, but she’d realised that there was no one to whom she wished to tell what had happened, much less anyone she wanted around her at that moment. She had just wanted to be home. So she’d put her Filofax aside, and gone into her bedroom to pack.
What Cate called her wardrobe was so large that it was more like a small room into which she could step, as she did that night to examine the rails of clothes which it contained. She’d rummaged through the dresses and jackets and skirts looking for suitable things to wear at home, but everything struck her as wrong: too pale or bright, or stylish. The only dark clothes she had were evening dresses. Eventually she’d found a grey dress she’d only ever worn once, and a black coat of classic cut. She’d looked at her shoes. She hadn’t realised she had so many pairs of shoes.
Suddenly she’d remembered being in Granny Kate’s bedroom one wet day, when Granny Kate was trying on a new lilac suit she’d just bought: she’d wear it for the first time at Mass on Easter Sunday. Cate was sitting on the bed playing with a powder puff and a drum of violet-scented talc, which she’d surreptitiously lifted from the dressing table, and which Granny Kate hadn’t noticed because she was so busy admiring herself in the mirror. Standing in the silent luxury of her own wardrobe, Cate remembered with uncanny vividness her grandmother’s room: the crocheted bedspread, the rain on the window, a scent of violets and dust. She dipped the puff in the talc and brushed it against her face.
‘Granny Kelly only ever wears black,’ she said. ‘Because of Grandad Kelly being dead.’
Granny Kate smiled at her own reflection and smoothed the collar of her suit with her fingers.
‘I wouldn’t wear black,’ she said frankly, ‘not if all belonging to me was dead.’
When the taxi had come to take Cate to the airport later that night, she was wearing a kingfisher-blue coat. She’d arrived at the airport, checked in and boarded as usual. But as the plane taxied down the runway, she realised that, for the first time ever, she was terrified, like a tightrope walker suddenly aware of the abyss into which she could fall at any moment. That terror forced her to believe, really believe, the truth of what Sally had told her. The spell was broken, the charmed life at an end.
During the flight this Saturday morning, she kept staring at her own name on the boarding card. When she’d started working in journalism, she hadn’t liked the look of her own name in print. Kate Quinn: it was too Irish, she thought, too country, and she’d been delighted when she hit on the idea of changing the ‘K’ to a ‘C’. Cate Quinn. It never crossed her mind that her family would have any problem with this, and she had been grieved and embarrassed when it became clear that they were hurt by what she had done, and saw in it a rejection of themselves. Not that anyone said anything, but it was years before her mother changed to the new spelling in her weekly letters to her daughter, and her father never abandoned her old name. Uncle Brian still called her ‘Katie’, as he’d always done: it was possible he wasn’t even aware of the change she had made. For a while Helen had sent her post addressed to ‘Cate Kwinn’, which Cate thought was spiteful at the time, although years later she could see the funny side of it.
As they flew in over Belfast, she put her face close to the window and looked down at Belfast Lough, the gantries of the shipyard, the city itself and the dark mountains that rose behind it. She wouldn’t have been happy in Belfast either. Once, she’d asked Helen if she enjoyed living and working there, to which Helen had replied, ‘I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that.’ ‘Enjoy’ wasn’t a word which seemed to figure large in Helen’s vocabulary. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy certain things a lot, more, Cate suspected, that she didn’t like to talk about them.
The plane banked and flew low. Lough Neagh appeared, a cold expanse of grey water, and then she saw fields and farms.
Cate stared intently at the land, as if trying to wring some knowledge from it, as if she were seeing it for the first time, although in fact it couldn’t have been more familiar to her, the type of landscape against which she still judged all others. A flock of sheep, stained blue as a mark of ownership, scattered in fright in a field beside the runway.
People turned to look at Cate as she walked through the arrivals hall at Aldergrove. The day Cate stopped turning heads would be the day she began to worry. Helen was waiting for her. The close resemblance between the two sisters was to some extent masked by the difference in how they presented themselves; by Cate’s being so expensively dressed, so impeccably groomed. They crossed to the luggage carousel. ‘Here’s your bag now,’ Helen said, nodding at a cracked tartan grip with two woolly pom-poms tied to the handle for easy identification. Cate laughed as she bent down to pick up what was in fact her luggage: an elegant leather suitcase.
‘Sorry for the state of this,’ Helen apologised, as she unlocked her car door, but Cate would have been surprised, disappointed even, if it hadn’t been the familiar muddle of magazines and newspapers and stray shoes and music cassettes, the whole liberally sprinkled with sweet wrappers. As Helen switched on the ignition, opera music blared loud from the radio. She leaned over and turned the sound down slightly, but paused in what she had been saying to listen to the music for a second. ‘Do you mind if we leave this on? It sounds like it might be really good.’
‘Feel free,’ Cate said. ‘So how are things? How’s everyone at home?’
‘All well. Mammy’s very excited about your being here for the week. She was all beside herself because you gave her such short notice.’
‘There was a problem with leave in the office,’ Cate said. ‘I had five days to take, and they put pressure on me to take them now, or lose them.’
‘Maybe you’ll be able to get over again later in the summer, at the time you usually come.’
‘Maybe,’ Cate said, but she didn’t sound convinced.
Not far from the airport, they had to stop at a security checkpoint, and Cate noticed the same sheep she had seen scatter in
fright just before the plane landed. Now they were huddled together beside a hedge, their jaws flicking dumbly. Helen threw her driving licence back into her open handbag, and they drove on again. A weak sun struggled against rapid, thick clouds. It started to rain.
‘So how’s work?’ Cate asked, and Helen frowned.
‘Oh, much as usual. We’re defending this guy Maguire at the moment; he shot a taxi driver. You might remember me talking about it. No? Anyway, I’m busy with him.’
‘Do you still go home most weekends?’
‘Almost every weekend now. It would take something really out of the ordinary to keep me away. I usually go home on a Friday night; I waited until Saturday this week so that I could collect you on the way rather than having to drive up again this morning. God no, Cate, I have to get out of the city come the weekend. It’s a safety valve.’
On the outskirts of Antrim there were already houses where Union Jacks and Ulster flags were hanging out for the Twelfth of July, even though it was only mid June. Red, white and blue bunting hung across the streets. ‘I thought we might as well go this way, through town,’ Helen said, ‘take the scenic route, rather than go by the motorway. We’re in no great hurry.’ On the far side of Antrim Cate noticed small pieces of wood with messages on them nailed to the trees and telegraph poles. ‘
WHERE IS YOUR BIBLE
?’ they said, ‘
?’ and ‘
Between Antrim and Randalstown was a stone wall which in the past had run unbroken the whole four miles, enclosing the estate around Shane’s Castle. Like the other estates she knew of, it had fascinated Cate when she was a child, a fascination she knew instinctively to keep well hidden, especially from Uncle Brian. Life in there must be so different, she thought. She even half-persuaded herself that the trees themselves, which she could see on the other side of the wall, were not at all like the trees that grew around her father’s farm. It would be like something out of a book, she thought. She imagined rooms full of beautiful things, and gilt-framed oil paintings of women with long pale faces; she thought of people riding through the estate on wonderful grey ponies, or doing embroidery by the fire and when they wanted tea, they would ring a bell and a maid would bring them
in a tray with china cups and a silver tea pot. She smiled now to remember all this. Uncle Brian used to talk about the wall and the poor local people who had built it. ‘Tuppence a day and a pound of oat meal, that’s the pittance they got for their labours,’ he said. Their father never talked about that, although he was interested in local history, much more so than his brother.
In the nineteen seventies, Cate’s curiosity had been satisfied when they built the motorway to Belfast, and it cut right through the middle of the estate. The extraordinary thing was, she had been right. It
different, it looked like pictures she had seen of the English countryside, lush and rolling with magnificent trees, horse-chestnut and oak and copper beech, utterly unlike the frail saplings that edged her father’s flat fields, even though they were only a few miles away. Sometimes on the hard shoulder of the motorway you would see a bewildered pheasant which had wandered out of the estate. You could visit Shane’s Castle now, there was some sort of little railway for tourists, but Cate had long since lost interest.
After another mile or so the land began to flatten out. Helen turned off the main road, and then made a series of right and left turns into a web of increasingly narrow roads lined with high hedges. The sun had struggled through again: they could see it’s pale light flash on the water of the lough; and in the far distance they could see the dark blue hump that was Slieve Gallion. Cate rolled down the car window. After the heavy dead heat of London in the summer the clean cool air that smelt of the recent rain was a relief to her. Before long they could see the roof of their house above the thickly leaved hedges, and farther off, the reddish chimneys of Brian’s place. The lane which led up to the farm was bumpy and rough, and Cate saw that their mother was waiting for her by the parlour window, as had always been her way. When she came out to the step, Cate hugged her and cried, suddenly afraid that she would forget her resolution and blurt out her news all at once.