“Are you there ?” she says.
“Yes – give me a second,” I say as I open the door for the children I am babysitting that day.
“I’m pregnant,” she says. The children glance at me as they rush by, their faces glistening with sweat and their eyes brimming over with joy.
“You’re sure ?” I say, half thinking, and fully hoping, it is a mistake.
A horn beeps and then the gears of a car grind to a halt followed by the steady hum of an engine idling. She is in a pay-phone somewhere. I wait and I think I hear something bang closed. A car door, maybe.
Finally, she says, “Yes, I’m almost five months now – I’m coming home on Friday. Can you be there when I tell Mum and Dad?”, stammering on the last “I” for a few counts.
“I’ll be on the five-thirty train, and, oh – by the way, I got my driving license,” she says.
“I gotta go to work now, I have a lift.”
I hear the click in the cradle and she is gone.
We were sent to the countryside, a campsite out on the coast while the arrangements were being made; somewhere out of sight was the main idea. I didn’t ask to go, but I couldn’t let her go alone. They rented a caravan for us and we hid out like criminals until a verdict had been reached. She bought a bomber jacket to camouflage her swelling belly. It was the most gorgeous colour blue that made me think of an endlessly cloudless sky. We bought sunglasses too even though the forecast was bad. Her skin glowed even more than it usually did, but her long slim limbs had lost their easy, colt-like gait. She told me how it had happened. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was on her side. She was so beautiful at sixteen.
She had just turned seventeen two months ago, so technically it was rape. But that never came up.
A week or so before her Leaving Cert exams, and about six months before it all happened, she asked me for a fiver one day, I forget exactly what for now, maybe a record or a tape.
“I don’t have any money right now,” I remember saying to her. “I haven’t babysat in a month.”
We were into Lou Reed’s Transformer album around that time. I can still hear her singing “Satellite of Love” in her unwavering voice. I wasn’t able to carry a tune very well. Once she tried to teach me how to whistle because I couldn’t do that either.
“Just purse your lips like this and blow gently.”
I’d try and try but nothing would come out at all… as if I had no breath or no air or no something.
Didn’t you just get some money from Dad for your train ticket?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Use that,” I said. “Just fake up the dates on your old pass.”
“Yes, you can. Don’t worry. I do it all the time.”
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll be caught?” she asked me.
“No. If I do, I’ll just say I must have got things mixed up and brought an old one instead of the new one.”
I did buy one every other month, so I could always use that as an excuse.
“It’ll be fine,” I remember saying.
“He won’t even look at it. Just hold it like this,” I said, with my thumb half across the doctored date lines. The plastic was old and hard to see through in the first place.
“Don’t flinch, stand somewhere noisy – with lots of action – and then look at him right in the eyes, but casually, and then look away at some kids making noise or carrying on. He’ll glance at it, give it back and move on to them.”
“How long have you been doing it?” she said.
“For over a year now,” I said, smirking and feeling quite smart with myself.
“Alright. I’ll try it.”
When I saw her face that evening I knew.
“I got caught. They called home and I got a warning.”
“I can’t believe it. Sorry,” I said.
I read racy trash the entire time we were in the caravan. I never read it before or since. Maybe it was all I could find on our hasty escape. I can’t remember. I wasn’t pregnant but it wasn’t because I couldn’t have been. We stayed there for a week, going into the local town and pretending that we were on vacation. My college pals had gone to the Greek Islands and I had half planned to go too. When I made up some excuse why I wasn’t going I knew it sounded so fake. Maxwell Smart in full swing, I thought to myself, and I had always fancied myself more like Agent 99, the ever capable one, and not the bumbling Max. She and I used to laugh at “Get Smart” together when we were younger.
The caravan was all cream and white like a baby’s coffin. Nondescript really, like our days there. We were killing time. We wandered around the town and out to the beach where it was too cold to swim and then back to the van where we stretched out on the benches to read, she on the sunnier side and me in the shadows. She had lain in mine often enough. One night, when it lashed out of the heavens, some young French guys who were rained out of their tent knocked on our caravan door. We made tea to warm them up and I remember how bemused they were by our lackluster holidaying. They tried to flirt with us but we couldn’t summon up the right mood for those games anymore.
“Bad tourists,” one of them joked, and we nodded our heads in sly agreement. We were buoyed along by their playfulness for a few short hours and we hung onto them like they were life preservers in a warm sea. We hadn’t fathomed how totally adrift we were yet. We never talked about the pregnancy again – not really – not after that week.
As I come through the cafe door, she is right there, waiting for me, blowing perfect smoke rings into the air, her full lips pursed just right. I’m not ready for the hit. She looks me over as if I might be concealing something under my leather jacket. There is a very small smile hovering around her mouth and a wave of anxiety sweeps over me.
I know she is trying, trying to forget certain things, and it occurs to me that maybe I am one of them. I pretend not to see it so as not to make it any harder. It soaks me through and through all the same. I was only nineteen. I tried my best.
“I’ll get a coffee,” I say, dodging away as fast as I can.
Under the table her leg shakes involuntarily as she lights a cigarette.
“So how is your new job ?”I ask when I get back with the coffee.
“Okay,” she says, looking back at me with a certain hesitancy that I know so well. I ignore the vibe; no – I strangle it instantly. It is not involuntary on my behalf. I am working it – as always, trying so hard not to stall out. She sucks so hard on the cigarette I think she is going to choke on it. I light one too in sympathy, but it doesn’t change a thing except take my breath away and I cough until she laughs and says, “do you want a few lessons?” I watch the relief flood into her eyes when our younger sister arrives to join us for a coffee. She had no part in the cover-up that I was made a party to. She was only seven years old then – lucky for her. They are becoming good pals now.
“I should get the bill and get going,” I say, trying in vain to catch the waitress’ s eye as she passes by.
“You don’t have to pay for it all,” she says emphasizing the all.
“Aah – I’d like to,” I mutter, quickly reaching down to pick up my bag.
“Do you remember the afternoon train times by any chance?” I say, coming back up from under the table.
“Yeah, I remember them all,” she says, looking at me a little wearily now.
“There is the three-twenty, if you hurry, and after that there’s one at five-thirty.”
At one time we both used to know the entire schedule – as a kind of safety net for our little adventures.
I took up smoking with relish that year – the year she was buried alive. I argued in vain. They had decided. I pleaded. I suggested alternatives and watched each one shot down without even a real hearing.
“This is for you,” I said.
“No, it’s for her,” they said.
“I don’t think so.”
Words failed me. She went to one of those homes for girls who did it out of wedlock; one of those old-fashioned places where the girls could have their babies and then have them adopted, and come back from their “training course” or whatever other lies had been made up.
It was my final year in college. One day as I hitchhiked home for the weekend, our Dad pulled over to pick me up.
“Come on, I’ll take you home,” he said, looking at me with his sad, watery blue eyes. “I don’t like you doing this anyway. It’s too dangerous.”
I stood there for a few moments, on the side of the road, looking at him and trying to find a way back, back into my former self. But I could not. I turned away and walked on down the road listening for him to go by. He must have accidentally skipped a gear because the old Renault chugged a little, but then surged forward as the speed picked up. I watched him pulling further and further away until I could no longer see the taillights through the spray of the rain that had started to softly fall.
“Hi, it’s me,” she says.
“Hi.” So glad her voice is upbeat and that she called me.
“We are going to get married.”
“You don’t have to,” I say.
“Well, you know, I’m pregnant and he wants to as well.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll help you,” I say.
“I know – but I so want to.”
“That’s great and I hope and pray it’s the right thing to do,” I say and then “I mean it.”
My help was probably the last thing in the world she wanted.
She looked beautiful in her cream silk gown that day and she was so tall that nobody noticed her lower belly a little full. Her husband looked the part too or at least he played it well.
When the glasses were raised, in a toast to her happiness, I clinked my glass against hers and in spite of myself I felt a twinge of jealousy. Maybe she saw it, too, because she stopped smiling when our eyes met as if she had seen some unexpected reflection that she could do without, like when you catch yourself in the harsh light of the rearview mirror.
Friday nights we would visit her, my mother and I, under the cover of darkness. Nobody saw us as we made our way up through the old convent’s back stairs and down corridors until we stopped in front of her door. I knocked on the door and waited.
“Are you in there?” asked our Mum.
“Yep, I’m here,”her voice leaden.
In we went, into her temporary cell, bringing supplies. It was a large upstairs room with big windows that looked out over some parkland. Her meals were delivered to the room on a tray and she went out to walk at appointed times only, when the other girls were not around. My mother had given her a big hooded cape, that she had worn when she was carrying babies, and my sister wrapped herself in this before she stepped out. One time when we brought her a little portable TV she was so happy for a break from the radio. She put on a brave face of it – our Mum, that is – that she was even inclined to joke about the secrecy that we were engaging in now, promising my little sister that she would be home for Christmas.
“Don’t worry, I know how to induce labour. A little castor oil in orange juice. It’ll get things moving,” Mum said. We deferred to her on that.
When people asked me where my sister was and what she was doing, I never had any confidence at all that they believed me when I said she was on a course in Timbuktu.
“Hello, It’s me – how are things?” I say, as always. I feel like a needle stuck in a groove, endlessly spinning, waiting for her to release me.
I hear her sigh as she says my name and my heart sinks a little.
“Not bad.” she says.
In the background her second child is chirping away.
“Look, I’ve only got a minute,” she says. Then, “sorry.”
I hear a door bang shut, way upstairs, as if suddenly caught by a furious wind. I flinch a little. I must have forgotten to close the windows.
“Okay – I just called to say hello.”
“I know,” she says and her voice softens.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Busy, you know, working and stuff.”
“How’s the young fella?” I say.
“Well – maybe I should let you go,” I say. “It’s a bad connection on this end anyway.”
“Yeah – call you back later,” she says.
I hang up and pour myself a drink. I think I did everything I reasonably could have.
She calls me to say, “I’m getting a divorce.”
“Do you think so?” she asks with just a little irritation in her voice.
“Well, it’s your choice now, isn’t it?” I say, backtracking quickly.
“Yes – it is,” she says with no rancour now at all, and I feel the beginnings of an absolution hiding there on the other side of the line. I am keen now, unlike all those years ago when I waited so impatiently behind the darkened grilles of the confessional box for the words that signalled my imminent release back into the light of the world. A silence, heavy like unwrung laundry, weighs down the line as I try to find the right words. But we must have got cut off – because she is gone when I start to speak and all I hear is the crackle on the line. And all I see are those doors opening and closing one after another in the opening sequence of “Get Smart.” As fast as I am trying to open them, they are closing. I duck down in the phone booth and bury my face in my hands.
After the baby was born we went into that place to bring my sister home for Christmas. I carried the baby girl to the chapel where she was christened on that dark wintry day. My sister could not bring herself to hold her, so I did it. Afterwards I took the train halfway down the line to the island station and then walked it the rest of the way home. We used to pick up the line at the end of our garden path and follow it out along the wide riverfront between the old houses and the small hills of the harbour before it turned out across a causeway, where the sandpipers waded in the estuary mud if the tide was out. Farther out, beyond the smooth grey blocks of an old Martello tower, the wind picked up as the small channel widened. On a sunny day the steel railway bridges cast their shadows into the murky waters below. From there, the beautiful, rundown gardens on the island estate took on a grandeur and wildness that wasn’t visible from anywhere else. We wandered across the bridges as light-footed as the deer in the parkland ahead, mesmerized by the geometry of the parallel steel lines, inhaling the slightly brackish air deep inside ourselves. Once ashore again, we sauntered down to the old greenhouses to meet our boyfriends in the abandoned gardens that were, more often than not, all ours the entire day long. We thought the world belonged to us.
I call her to say “Happy Christmas.”
I can hear her voice, warm and mellow now, as she drags on a cigarette. Maybe she’s had a drink, I think. We talk for over an hour, shooting the breeze, this and that. It’s okay by me. I don’t need a lot.
“Hang on a minute, will you, while I unlock the door for one of my boys?” she says.
I wait, listening to the kerfuffling in the background, the muted voices of her sons and the door closing and then her footfalls on the tile floor as she comes back to the desk in her hallway.
“Are you still there ?” she says, as she picks up the handle.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m still holding.”
Born in NFLD, Canada in1961 to Irish parents who moved back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times before settling just outside Cork city in Ireland. I attended university there and pursued a degree in Comp. Sc and Mathematics while reading literature avidly and discovering film on Channel Four and BBC2. Served my time as a s/w designer, tester and product manager for a multinational mobile telephony corporation in various countries around the globe. Backpacked across China and a few other Asian countries and worked a few odd jobs. Pursued film studies and writing courses whenever I could. I came to the States with my husband in 2000 and became a full-time mother in 2002. I have been experimenting in both the short story and the short film format for a little while now and I just love the form.