Authors: Ella Griffin
For Matt and Eileen.
I still think of you both every single day.
âSometimes your head is shouting so loudly,
you can't hear what your heart is whispering.'
The woman looked out at Claire from a long-forgotten sunny afternoon. Her hair was the burnished copper of an expensive saucepan. She wore a man's blue and white striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a white cheesecloth skirt. The hem was tucked up into the waistband to reveal her long pale legs. Her feet were bare. She was using an upturned tennis racket as a cricket bat, bending over it, grinning up through the curtain of her hair, waiting for the ball.
Claire looked a lot like the woman in the photograph. They both had the same almost translucent Irish skin. The same cinnamon-coloured hair. The same wide, dark green eyes. The same fair eyebrows and eyelashes. But the woman was a fraction taller and half a stone lighter. Her hair was straight and silky, not a tangle of curls. She didn't have a small gap between her top front teeth or a blur of freckles across her nose and cheekbones. And there were other differences too â ones that a camera couldn't capture. Claire's life was going nowhere but the woman had everything to live for. And though they were both thirty-three, Maura would never make it to thirty-four. And that was Claire's fault.
Mossy, Claire's ancient CitroÃ«n 2CV, shuddered, backfired twice, then shot past a cyclist on the Ranelagh Road. Ray saw his outraged face in the wing mirror before it disappeared in a cartoon puff of blue exhaust fumes. Claire gripped the steering wheel. âAre you sure you didn't have plans?'
âSure I'm sure.' Till an hour ago, Ray had plans that included Liza, the blonde yoga teacher who was still asleep when Claire had finally given up texting him and climbed up the fire escape to tap on his window.
âIt's an emergency,' he had said, hurrying Liza back into her clothes. âMy best friend. Death in the family.' Which was true, though the death had happened twenty-seven years ago.
Mossy shot past a coach that was pulling away from a bus-stop. Ray's foot pumped an imaginary brake pedal and something caught under his heel. It was a broken windscreen wiper, the rubber frayed, the spindly metal arm gritty with rust.
He picked up the other one. âBTW, these are supposed to be on the outside of the car.'
âFYI, they were, until some gouger pulled them off last week. Why is Mossy such a magnet for delinquents?'
Ray didn't know where to begin. The heat was activating his tequila hangover and Mossy's BO, a gut-churning blend of petrol fumes and vegetative matter from the sagging soft top. He tried to roll down his window but the handle was stuck so he switched to breathing through his mouth.
Claire turned around and stared at him as if they were sitting on a sofa and not belted into a rusting metal death-trap hurtling through suburban Dublin. âYou're panting.'
âI'm fine,' he croaked.
âOh God,' Claire looked back at the road and bit her lip. âI wish Nick wasn't going to be there. I could handle this if it was just me and Dad.'
Her hair had that obstreperous look it always got when she was upset. Her narrow shoulders were hunched up so far they were practically touching her ears. Ray was glad he was here and not on the road with his mobile turning into a fiery little brick in his hand while he tried to talk her down off the ceiling. Birthdays were hard for Claire but he'd get her through this. No matter where he was, he always did.
They swung off the Milltown Road, clipping a kerb, and he watched the familiar, neat rows of the semi-d's slip past. Hawthorn Crescent, Hawthorn Close, Hawthorn Lane. Nothing had changed.
There was the low wall by the bus-stop where he used to wait for Claire after school, and the narrow laneway that led across a football field to the railway tracks where they used to smoke. And there was Lennon's corner shop where Ray had once been caught by Beaky Lennon sneaking a tin of beans he'd taken from his mother's cupboard on to a shelf. Reverse shoplifting. Jesus, he hadn't thought of that for years.
A couple of bikes were flung on the grass beneath the chestnut tree on the green in front of the row of shops, and two figures were starfished on the grass where he and Claire used to lie on hot summer days when there was nothing to do.
Nostalgia, sharp as a fish-hook, caught in his throat. Nearly twenty years had flashed past. How had that happened?
He flipped the sun visor down and peered into the speckled mirror. There were two faint lines running from the side of his nose to the corners of his mouth but he looked pretty good for someone who'd only had four hours' sleep.
Claire pulled over and switched the engine off and they sat listening to a dog barking and the distant whine of a lawnmower. The sound of the suburbs, Ray thought. He looked across the road and there was his old house. He half expected to see his father's Corolla in the drive but his folks had moved to Malaga fifteen years ago.
âYou could have warned me that there were Dora the Explorer curtains in my bedroom window.' He glanced at Claire. Not even a smile. âYou want me to come in with you?'
She shook her head and opened the door but stayed where she was, zipping her small gold locket back and forth on its chain and staring into her lap.
âI've got a new one for you!' Ray drummed on the dashboard with the broken wipers and sang the chorus of âAddicted to Love', changing the words to âyou're a duck with a glove'.
âHa, ha,' Claire said very quietly.
âThat's got to be worth three “ha”s.'
âHa!' she whispered.
Claire closed the front door and let the atmosphere of the house settle round her. The trailing ivy on the porch had swallowed up all the June sunshine and the narrow hall was murky. She always felt sorry for the house â it had been cheated of the life it should have had. Years of sadness and silence seemed to have soaked into the peeling paint and the faded carpets. Almost nothing had been changed since her mother had opened this door for the last time.
Her dad was standing at the kitchen window. Claire had given him plenty of new shirts over the years but today he was wearing the old blue one with frayed cuffs. His long, thinning grey hair was caught under the collar. There was a tiny piece of tissue stuck to his chin. He must have cut himself shaving.
âDad!' He didn't move. âDad!'
âSorry. I was listening to something on the radio.' He pulled an earphone out of his ear. He smiled and his grey eyes met hers for a moment and then dipped away and she felt a low ache under her ribs. The spreading bruise of guilt. âDo you want some tea?' He held up his cup. âI just made some.'
âNick will be waiting, we should go.' She took his mug. It was full but stone cold. âI've got Ray with me.'
âRay,' he said vaguely, as if he was having trouble placing him. Sometimes Claire worried that her dad was losing his memory, then she reminded herself that he'd been like this for most of her life. There, but not really
He went over to the sink and gathered up a bunch of lilac that was on the draining board. He always brought her mother flowers, even after all this time. âI don't suppose Nicholas would like it if I brought Dog,' he said. There was a sudden scrabbling of claws on the lino and a huge, shaggy grey head appeared from under the table. Claire backed away to the door. Dog had moved in twelve years ago, two weeks after she had moved out. Some kids had tied him to a shopping trolley with a bent coat hanger and he'd been crashing around the supermarket car park damaging the cars and scaring the customers. Her dad had untied him and they'd been inseparable ever since.
Dog looked as if he should be gnawing a huge bone in front of a baronial fireplace instead of lurking in a small suburban kitchen. He yawned and stretched and Claire inched a little farther out into the hall, but he didn't even bother to look at her. Dog had stopped trying to win her over years ago. Instead he ambled over to her dad and tucked his head under his arm for a cuddle and Claire wondered, again, why her dad was able to show more affection to a hairy lurcher than he was to his children.
Kelly stood a little way off beneath a stand of trees to give the Dillons space. They were queuing at the end of a long row of upright headstones like people waiting in a bank teller's line.
Nick was at the front, the peonies she'd picked from their garden a blaze of crimson against his white shirt. His dad was standing a few feet behind him holding a bunch of wilting lilac. Then there was Nick's sister Claire, tugging at her tangle of red hair, shifting from foot to foot in her too-short grey dress and her too-high strappy sandals. Claire hadn't brought flowers. She'd brought the guy who was hanging round the gate of the cemetery dressed from head to foot in black.
âThis is Ray,' she'd said in the awkward moment when they'd met outside and Kelly had thought, âNo way!' Her old college room mate, Haru, used to have a screen saver of Ray Devine. âSmoke Covered Horses' had, as they said, been big in Japan. They'd broken up a few years back but he was still rocking the bad boy look with the Aviators and the carefully messed-up black hair. When she was at high school, he was exactly the kind
of guy she'd daydreamed about but she'd grown out of that pretty fast.
Kelly had gotten pretty good at guessing what kind of places people lived in and she was willing to bet her last dollar that his had black sheets and Helmut Newton nudes and framed pictures of himself in the bathroom.
She looked at her husband with his close-cut sandy hair and his broad, solid back and her heart did a little flip of relief and gratitude. There was nothing boyish about Nick. He was all man.
Nick put the peonies down by the headstone, relieved to be free of them. There was something mawkish about bringing flowers when he could hardly bear to be here at all. He turned away and walked over to where Kelly was waiting. Just looking at her in her light linen dress with her long, dark hair loose was like having a long, cool drink of water. âHi,' he said.
âHi.' She slid her sunglasses down so he could see her eyes.
âWherever she is,' she whispered, âI know your mom is really proud of you.' The flinch was almost invisible, but she caught it. âAre you okay?'
âI just need a couple of minutes of us-time before lunch.'
âSure.' She took his arm. Nick was edgy about seeing his family and Kelly got that. Her parents reminded her of parts of herself she'd rather forget. She had moved to New York to get away from her past. And then crossed an ocean, just to be sure.
Claire watched them hurry along the path to the gate, the perfect stranger who used to be her brother and his perfect wife. She had thought, when Nick first moved back to Dublin, that he was coming home, but this was only the second time she'd seen him in nearly a year. She didn't blame him. He couldn't help it. She looked back down at the grave. It wasn't just her mother who was buried beneath the rectangle of granite chippings, it was all of them, the family they would have been if she were still here.