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Authors: Christine Dwyer Hickey

The Lives of Women

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THE LIVES OF WOMEN

 

Also by Christine Dwyer Hickey

The House on Parkgate Street and Other Dublin Stories

Cold Eye of Heaven

Last Train from Liguria

Tatty

The Dancer (The Dublin Trilogy)

The Gambler (The Dublin Trilogy)

The Gatemaker (The Dublin Trilogy)

 

Published in trade paperback in Great Britain in 2015 by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.

Copyright © Christine Dwyer Hickey, 2015

The moral right of Christine Dwyer Hickey to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Trade paperback ISBN: 978 1 78239 005 3

E-book ISBN: 978 1 78239 006 0

Printed in Great Britain

Atlantic Books

An Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd

Ormond House
26‒27 Boswell Street

London WC1N 3JZ

www.atlantic-books.co.uk

 

To Bonnie,

with love

 

Let not your hearts be seduced.

BOOK OF DEUTERONOMY

 

Contents

  
1 Winter Present

  
2 Summer Past

  
3 Winter Present

  
4 Summer Past

  
5 Winter Present

  
6 Summer Past

  
7 Winter Present

  
8 Summer Past

  
9 Winter Present

10 Summer Past

11 Winter Present

12 Summer Past

13 Winter Present

 

1

Winter Present

November

HAD I NOT GONE
searching for the number of some dead roofer called Fenton and found the attic room in need of an airing, I may not have heard a thing. Or had it been summer and the trees in the back yard stuffed with leaves, I'd hardly have even noticed. It's years since I've ventured that far into the cul-de-sac anyhow, and since my return I'm rarely out on the road – not without the hard shell of a car around me. And so, unless one of the neighbours managed to nab me at the gate, say on bin day, or just as I was taking the dog back in from his walk, or unless Fat Carmel got wind of things and started fishing for scraps to add to her pot, weeks may well have passed before the news finally wound its way to me. By then, who knows – this business with my father could well have been over, and I could have gone back to New York. By the time my next visit came around – if it
ever came around – the house backing on to ours would no longer matter.

The rooms would be scrubbed clean of all the old stains, the dust and damp of the vacant years cleared away. While this new family – the now owners – would have had time to peel off the skins of paper and carpet and paint, and to smear all the rooms with its own ethological scent. And I wouldn't have to keep thinking about something that happened more than thirty years ago, and the old ghosts would not now be whimpering at the far side of my back wall.

 

As it stands, I did open the attic window into the gaudy light of a winter sun, and the view over the bare trees and across the back lawns could not have been clearer. And so that's how I know, and can't pretend not to know, that the Shillman house has been sold; that the Shillman house can finally be called something else.

The patio doors have been pinned back, the side entrance gate removed. The upstairs windows, stripped bare of curtains, are wide-open gills sucking on air. From the interior some sort of a machine is screeching. And men in overalls are coming and going, turning the house inside out, streeling its guts all over the lawn.

 

All day I've been returning to the window – even the dog is beginning to wonder, shadowing me upstairs to the landing then cowering at the bottom of the spiral stairwell that leads to the attic
room. ‘What are you doing up there?' his whine seems to say. ‘What the hell are you
doing
?'

I'm drinking my mid-morning coffee while two men do a Laurel and Hardy routine down the patio steps, the Shillmans' grey leather sofa like a dead hippo between them.

I'm back with my lunchtime sandwich, watching a young hay-haired man, stretched out on the same sofa, spouting cigarette smoke overhead like he's some sort of fountain.

I'm licking the yoghurt off the back of my spoon as, one by one, a whole family of mattresses is flung against the back garage wall and the bones of old beds, cots and bunk frames are stacked up alongside them.

More than once I return to the young man on the sofa and wonder when young men started looking this good.

 

By twilight I'm polishing the dust off my father's old binoculars.

I see it all now: the four-sided bookcase they had shipped from India; the pony-skin rug that used to hang on the dining-room wall. The contents of the Shillman kitchen, the contents of the Shillman living room, always referred to as a lounge.

I am struck by the amount of belongings: boxes and boxes of belongings, many of which have already been emptied, contents arranged into heaps on the lawn. Books, toys, coats, boots, riding helmets. Shoes. Tennis rackets. Skateboards. Schoolbags. More coats. It's as if the Shillmans closed the door behind them with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Hay-head slips into view then, soft mouth and strong hands
filling the lens. I watch as he hoists Mr Shillman's golf bag onto his shoulder, then picks his way around the boxes and piles to the end of the boundary wall. He lifts the bag and lowers it into the gap between the Shillman house and the Caudwells'. (Jesus – that gap! I'd forgotten all about it). And I watch, again, the innocent, easy-hipped saunter of him as he makes his way back up the garden path and disappears into the side entrance around to the front of the house.

 

By now the bare windows on the Shillmans' house are stark yellow squares on an inky dusk. Other houses around show a flimsier light through curtains and blinds. Everything braced against darkness: pegs clenched on clothes lines, garbage bins backed to the wall, witchy long fingers clawing out from emaciated trees. The rusty old swing in the Jacksons' garden is sturdy as a hangman's gallows. In the Caudwells', a rolled up patio umbrella has turned into a hooded monk.

It occurs to me, then, that I may not be the only one looking down from a window, that the Shillman house is visible from at least four other houses – or at least it used to be when I was the local babysitter. The thoughts of sharing this moment with one of the old neighbours: Anne Jackson or Bill Tansey or – God forbid – Miriam Caudwell.

I move from the window, lay the binoculars down, my wrists aching from the old-fashioned weight of them.

I know I should leave well enough alone: go back downstairs, do what I am supposed to do, which is to feed and medicate both
father and dog. From the landing, a long drop of leftover rain flops tiredly into the bucket, reminding me the reason I came up here in the first place: to find the number of a roofer my father is convinced is still alive – a man I recall as already quite old when I was a child. All afternoon he's been patiently waiting, hand by the phone, to make his first call in weeks. I could, at least, make an effort.

I stand rubbing my wrists for another while then step back up to the window. Not a sound nor a movement indoors or out. There is only the stir of old turf club badges as I lift the binoculars back up to my face.

Whatever I see now reminds me of something: an occasion, a moment, a feeling. Rachel's old-fashioned boarding school trunk. Michael's orange Colnago racer. Danny's yellow tricycle. There's the hats Mr Shillman brought back from Texas. The Russian candelabra he once told Agatha a story about and made her cry.

There's the black rag-rug that their ‘girl from the country' made, and the glass cocktail cabinet with the crack up the middle. Mrs Shillman's desk where she wrote her letters; and the painting Serena gave to her, and later regretted, one afternoon of heavy drinking.

I see the green roll of an army sleeping bag and my heart begins to tighten. I see Karl's haversack and my blood turns cold.

Next day I take the dog walking on what was once Arlows' land – the last place I should be, considering the night I've just put in:
scattergun dreams and rooms filled with lost faces. A dozen jittery trips to the bathroom in between. I was late up and late bringing breakfast to my father. He didn't complain – he never would; at times I think he'd as soon have me starve him to death.

Over the years Arlows' place has been sold off in parcels and patches, ‘so houses like yours could crawl like reptiles all over my land', as Maggie Arlow, rosy with gin, once said to me.

On a few acres of land the Arlows had probably forgotten they even owned, Mr Jackson built our little estate more than fifty years ago, holding one house back for himself – two rows of good-sized no-nonsense family homes with a cul-de-sac looping off the middle – and for a long time it was the only housing estate around here.

All that is left of the Arlows now, their house and its grounds, orchard and stableyard, is the rear view they once enjoyed over the valley and the random stone wall to the front. The wrought-iron gates have been removed but the pillars remain and now serve as an entrance to the final development to be built around here, maybe fifteen years ago, or at some stage, anyhow, during my long absence. And if Maggie thought our reptiles were bad, I don't know what she'd make of these dormer bungalows with their Tudor notions, plonked all over what was once her driveway and front lawns.

The valley itself, now a council-owned park, is still good and rough around the edges. Pathways and cycle tracks are etched into the slopes. Where the paddocks once were, there are mown grass patches. A proper car park sits near the entrance along with a map indicating where the wildlife can be found. At the squat stone
bridge where the river splits, the ruins of Hoxtons' house still stand, not looking any worse for wear than it did when I was a child. Over a ditch in a nearby field, there is a tree railed in by four brass bed-ends: here lies the shrine to the dead tinker-man.

Fat Carmel has her own take on the wildlife down here and frequently sings it for me in that sugary Welsh accent of hers whenever I drop by her shop to pick up my father's newspaper. Campfires are her speciality – Rizla papers and scraps of tin foil mean the fire has been made by junkies. Broken glass and burnt beer cans indicate the ordinary everyday drunks. She tells me all this as if I couldn't have figured it out for myself.

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