Where do I go from here?

Anne Donnelly

I peel green skin from brambly apples and put them in cold water until I’m ready. As I squeeze margarine and flour between my fingers, Luke’s laughter fills my ears. He would be sitting on the worktop, if he were here, pushing cook books aside and laughing at my nagging voice. Flour would coat the bum of his jeans and I’d curse him for having to wash a clean pair again. Clothes are meant to be washed, he would say. Yeah but not every day I’d retort. Then he’d tell me, he loved me and the corners of my lips would be pulled up towards my eyes as he’d give me a sideways hug.

Now I’d love to see his white bum. As I drop water into the margarine and flour mixture a Nokia ringtone pulls me out of my memories. I pick up my phone with doughy hands.

“Sorry to be ringing you on a Saturday, Marian, but I’m just wondering if you might be back at work on Monday.”

“Yes Jim, I hope so.”

“Good, we could do with you. And your mother…has she improved at all?”

“Em…a bit…she’s gone to a nursing home. She’s happier now.”

“Oh that’s good and Luke? Any sign of him coming home?”

“Afraid not, Sydney’s much more attractive than living here with his mam and with no employment prospects…”

“…That’s true. Well, we’ll see you Monday.”

“Yes. See you then all going well.”

I’m looking forward to getting back to the normality of work. Though, will anything ever be normal again? My gouty fingers stiffen as I lay sliced apples on the pastried plate. The chill that’s been in the house for days won’t leave, even though it’s the middle of June and it’s twenty degrees outside. I’ll light the fire later. It’s winter in Sydney. The turf’s warmth will remind me of the nights we shared its heat and earthy smell. The bedtime stories told and Luke’s towel-clad body huddled in front of the fire while his pyjamas warmed on the fireguard.

Luke had told me last Sunday he would Skype tonight. Skype, emails, Facebook – the virtual connections that everybody praises. I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about. Instant access is great but I miss the anticipation of a letter he might have sent in another time. The chance to touch paper he touched, trace over the ink that might have gone from the pen in his hand onto the paper in mine. There’s nothing to lift to my nose so I can smell my son. I can’t marvel at the way he writes an “a” and how different it is to anybody else’s. Nobody’s character shapes an “a” in an email.

My one consolation when Luke left, had been that there would be less washing. Then the weekly washing of floury jeans turned into daily washing of urine sodden sheets. Revolving doors let Luke out of the house and my mother in, as rapidly advancing motor neurone disease stole her independent city life.

There’s a familiar knock on the back door as I put the tart into the oven. It’s four o clock already. Where did the day go?

“Come in Seanie.”

“There’s not much turf left in the shed.”

“I didn’t get to save any last year. Too busy with mam and with Luke gone…”

“…I cut too much this year. I was bringing it in last week and I was thinking of you and well there’s enough for two houses this winter.”


“Well if you want some?”

“That’s very good of you.”

I sweep the flour from the worktop. It clings to my wet hands in the most hateful way. I use a blunt knife to scrape wet clumps from the dips between my fingers before plunging them into the comfort of Fairy liquid water. Seanie releases socked feet from hard working boots. The smell of them, creep up behind me.

“Sit down. The tart will be ready in a few minutes. The paper is there if you want to have a read while you’re waiting.”

As I wash the mixing bowl and rolling pin, white smoke snakes above the far corner of the field that separates my house from Seanie’s.

“Burning again, Seanie?”

“Yeah, have to be careful though. You know if any of those green people saw the smoke they’d report me. It’s an awful state of affairs now that a man can’t burn on his own land anymore without being fined.”

“It is surely…an awful state of affairs. Did I ever tell you that mam always said…she’d like to be cremated?”

“No you didn’t.”

He opens the paper and the rustling pages irritate my ears. He’s probably going straight to the sports section to see what horses are running in Punchestown. I’m glad that his eyes are focussed on that and not me. I can relax a little bit and there’s no need to fill the silence with weather or village talk. The time it takes the tart to cook passes quickly.

I make the tea not having to ask how strong or light it should be. The smell from the oven tells me it’s time.

“Marian,” he says, crumbs falling from his moving lips, “did I ever tell you, your tart is even better than my poor mother’s, God rest her soul.”

“You tell me that every Saturday.”

“Well….I’m glad I do.”

My heart trips as the tone in his voice seems to wink at me. There’s nothing to say. I ignore the dull flutter and wonder if I need a check-up. Now that I’m on my own I need to look after myself. Dad had died of a heart attack when he was my age and after the last few weeks it would be no surprise if the same happened to me. Perhaps it’s what I deserve?

“Any word from Luke?”

“He’s got residency.”

“Oh, that’s good. Isn’t it?”

“Well there’s nothing for him here really, is there?”

I don’t tell Seanie of my notion to go to Sydney, to spend mam’s money on what could be a holiday that might turn into something else. Barbequed Christmas dinners run through my head, with Luke at first, then maybe a girlfriend or wife and later – grandchildren. I had decided to do the decent thing last week and tell him on Skype, not in a cowardly email the way he had told me of the residency.

“Would it be hard for me to get some kind of visa now that you’ve residency?” I had asked him.

“I don’t know, Mam.”

“I’ve a bit of money put aside.”

“Oh? I thought you gave me the last of your savings for my flight out here.”

“Well there’s enough for a plane ticket. I could come out for Christmas, maybe longer.”

“Oh, tha-that would be…great”

He looked away from the camera and swiped the air around his head. I think he was trying to kill a mosquito.

“The only thing is, Mam, well I’m not sure where I’ll be for Christmas. There’s a big job coming up in the outback, miles from anywhere and not really suitable for women – well women your age anyway.”

A job in the outback, not a suitable place for me? Hadn’t I been in worse places? I couldn’t tell him that. He forgot to ask how his gran was and I didn’t say.

Seanie crosses through my thoughts with a harsh cough.

“Sorry Seanie, I was miles away, another bit of tart?”

He eats a second slice.

“Some more tea?”

He nods. A bit too compliantly, for my liking. As I pour the tea, mam’s words are in my head.

“A man like Seanie, well he could grow on you…and you could do with the company, once I’m gone.”

She’d always liked Seanie and even more so, since she had come to live with me a year ago. That’s when his weekly Saturday visits began. Luke had emigrated and Mam’s illness worsened. She loved to see Seanie and now come to think of it, it was probably her more than me who encouraged his weekly visits.

Company. Is that what I need now? Someone to cook for, someone’s clothes to wash, someone to warm me at night so I won’t be wasting turf – lighting fires in the middle of June.

“People come in and out of your life as you need them…Lean on the ones around you when your dearest leave and when they want to go, let them. The greatest gift of all is to let go. Never forget that, Marian.”

That’s what Mam had written in her letter to me not long before she had come to live with me. I didn’t realise it then but it was in effect, her terms and conditions. The contract that we entered into, that allowed me to care for her and allowed her some honour in a degrading illness. Now, I wonder what mam had really meant. Who really needed Seanie, the day she died and who needs him now?

I sit down to drink my tea and shift mam’s final breaths from my mind. Breaths that I never got to hear. Seanie drags bog tanned hands through his not yet greyed hair. His Lynx deodorant tries to hide farm smells. He could grow on me, I suppose. I don’t know why I haven’t seen that before. Maybe he was just too familiar. Or maybe I never saw him because there was always something or someone else to attend – my late husband, who died too early in life, Luke and then a sick mother.

I feel exposed sitting on the chair opposite him. There’s nothing to hide behind as his maleness jumps at me. Is he trying to claim my body the way he reclaimed the rushy field near the bog last year? I could shave my legs tonight or maybe next Saturday some time before four. Who am I kidding?

As if sensing my unease, Seanie shifts in the cushioned chair that he belittles with his big frame. It’s near five o clock, his usual departure time. It would be into the town for a few pints and then home. He doesn’t go to dances anymore.

“I often wondered, why you never got married?”

The words are out of my mouth before I know what I’m saying. The satisfied look on his face tells me he’s not going to let the opportunity slip away from him. I brace myself.

“Just waiting for you, Marian. Waiting until you were ready.”

Shit – I’ve never heard him utter such a smooth line. Repellent words catch in my throat as I focus on the hair-line creases in his forehead. His hook slices through my heart as I think back to the night he helped end my mother’s pain. My own too – if I’m truthful.

Seanie’s leaning forward now, his chair at tipping point and his chin resting on the knuckles of his bent fingers. He has an expectant air about him. “What’s stopping you?” His probing eyes scream. The memory of that night and your part in it – I want to shout back.

“You go now, don’t stay love,” my mother had said.

Or at least that’s what I think she said. I lie awake at night and remember her slurred words, the tiny tear that escaped through the corner of her eye and travelled down the side of her nose. Then I read and re-read her letter that I’ve kept in the drawer of my bedside locker for the last year.

The pillow muffled any screams I might have heard, that night as I tried to make tea in the kitchen, but they still tied themselves around my heart. The remnants of her body are gone now, the ashes mixed in with Seanie’s spent turf.

“It was what she wanted,” he says.

“I know.”

“She’s at peace now.”

“I know.”

His hands grip the mug as he drains the dark tea. Those hands. The mug is covered with black fingerprints. He’ll have to go soon so I make a move to clear the table. What little milk is left in the carton, spills onto the floor as he reaches for my hand. He’s not fast enough. As I wash up, white smoke hangs in the evening sky and just looking at it waters my eyes.

“What’s done is done, Marian. You have to move on.”

His socked feet shuffle on the kitchen tiles as he talks and I feel his breath on the crown of my head.

“Isn’t it time you went to the pub?”

“Nothing to keep me here…is there?”


Seanie grunts as he thrusts his feet into the boots stored neatly in the utility room. The back door releases trapped air from my lungs as it slams and dislodges a photo of Luke in front of Sydney’s Opera House from the fridge. It lands in the split milk. His tanned body whitens as water flows down my desert face. As I bend to mop up the mess, I know that the baking on Saturday’s will stop soon and my door will be locked. Outback or no outback, I’m going to see my son.