Frankie keeps the letter in his inside jacket pocket, the photos undetectable inside the plain white envelope addressed by hand to Mr. F. Melrose, Edgeworth House, Ballina, Co. Mayo. Ireland. It was the Ireland, and of course the transatlantic stamp, that had alerted Frankie to its presence amongst the buffs and whites of the morning post. And Frankie, or Mr. Melrose, appreciated good penmanship having been headmaster in the local primary school for many a year.
The family home is a solid two storey country house at the end of a long lane. As a child Frankie had fancied it squatted there, toad like, vaguely poisonous. The adult Frankie appreciates the symmetry of the architecture; two windows on the first floor and two on the ground, the hall door equidistant between them. The lawn in front is intersected by the gravel driveway that sweeps up and around the back of the house to the back door that leads into the scullery which itself lead into the kitchen with its black and white tiled floor unchanged since his childhood
It’s three o’clock in the morning and Frankie stands in the cold kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. He learnt years ago that once sleep leaves him it’s pointless lying waiting for its return. This late night tea-making is such a regular occurrence that he hasn’t bothered to turn on the light, in fact it’s seldom necessary to do so as moon light pours in through the large back window. In the last few weeks he had awoken almost every night and lay with his eyes open in the dark, unpleasantly conscious of his heart beating in his chest, disquiet coursing through his body. ‘Was it possible?’
He casts his mind back, floundering in memories, half memories and doubts. Perhaps he’s imagining it, creating a memory? But no, Frankie knows himself better than that. He isn’t the sort to conjure up false memories or to be swayed by a letter from an unknown niece with claims of family ties. And yet, and yet something’s nagging at the back of his mind. Perhaps it’s a similar process to family lore, where a story becomes so familiar that one believes oneself to remember events that preceded one’s own birth and paints oneself onto the canvas as it were. It is when he opens the fridge and its light falls on the tiles that one clear, unclouded memory pops into Frankie’s tired head. As his memory unfolds, (for that is how it feels to him; as if a banner is unfurling itself behind his forehead), Frankie is once again four or five years of age sitting playing underneath the table in this very room on the night that he had last seen Agnes.
Crumbs scattered under thin rubber wheels.
The boy pushed the little red engine backwards and forward across the mat. He leaned forward to examine a chip of cream paint knocked from the spindled table leg.
The engine careened away towards the opposite table leg. Frankie’s hand paused at the sound of gravel crunching outside in the yard; his parents were back and he was still up. He heard the car doors slam shut, footsteps and muffed voices carried across the back yard on the cold night air. Inside the house Frankie heard a slap followed by a giggle from the indoor passage-way between the pantry and kitchen. He smiled; Michael and Margaret were in there playing. Michael had called to see his older sister Margaret as soon as the parents had driven off – Michael only called when Mam and Pa were out. Frankie liked Michael because he usually brought him a brown paper bag full of sweets and Margaret usually said that he shouldn’t because the little brat got enough spoiling as it was and why did she have to stay in and mind him and then Michael would tickle his sister and she would laugh and forget about how annoying her brother was and Frankie usually got to stay up late, like tonight.
Margaret must have heard the noises from outside for suddenly Frankie heard urgent whispering in the passage. Then the sound of the front door opening and closing quietly and Margaret running back towards the kitchen. The door to the pantry opened and brown brogues tripped quickly across the tiled floor. One side of the table cloth was pulled up and a head swung briefly into view. Margaret, cheeks flushed.
‘Not a sound Frankie, do you hear me now? Not a sound.’
The cloth dropped back into place and Margaret’s feet hurried away to the other side of the kitchen where they stopped beside the sink and Frankie heard the water rushing from the tap into the kettle and before he could move or say a word the door to the yard opened and closed, then the door from the passage way into the kitchen pushed open and from under the table Frankie counted three new pairs of shoes.
‘You’re back early.’ Margaret’s voice rang bright, cheery.
Pa’s feet moved towards the fireplace and stopped. Frankie watched as the old poker was lifted from the companion set on the hearth then he lost sight of it but heard it bang against the grate and the iron base.
‘Why didn’t you tend the fire?’ His father’s voice was sharp and Frankie was glad that it was Margaret who was being asked the question and not him.
Margaret didn’t answer. Her feet moved quickly to the dresser and back and Frankie heard the cups and saucers rattle on the table above his head. He held his breath. He heard the poker clang loudly again and then the hollow thud of turf sods dropping onto embers. Frankie watched the sparks float upwards out of his line of vision.
Then Mam stepped towards the dresser, paused and turned back towards the table and stopped. It seemed to Frankie that she was about to dance but that somehow she couldn’t. Did she not know the steps? But Mam always knew the steps (she taught Frankie the foxtrot at Auntie Betty’s wedding) but there was no music to dance to tonight. That must be what was wrong. Frankie covered his eyes with his hands and peeked from between his fingers. His Mam’s shoes were right beside the table and then a chair was pulled out and Mam sat down and Frankie looked at the stockings crinkling around her ankles and wanted to put his finger there but knew that he couldn’t because then Mam would know that Margaret hadn’t put Frankie to bed then Pa would kill her, would maybe even give her some belts with his belt and then that Margaret would kill him. He felt a hard little lump in his chest and stuck his thumb in his mouth. He wished that it was Margaret who had gone out with Mam and Pa and Agnes who stayed at home to mind him. Agnes never told him to shut up or shook him or threatened to kill him.
Where was Agnes? Frankie’s eyes scanned the tiles and stopped at Agnes’ feet. Her black Sunday shoes had a line of mud around them and Frankie wondered how it had got there and why Agnes was wearing her good shoes and why she stood stock still, as if her feet were rooted to the tiles, one shoe on a black tile and the other on a white tile. Frankie often hopped from tile to tile trying not to land on a black one but it was hard to stay within the lines. Step on a crack and go to hell. That’s what Margaret told him.
‘Did Frankie settle for you?’ Mam asked.
Frankie squeezed his two eyes shut and held his breath.
‘Aye. No problem.’ Margaret replied.
‘Good girl. Off to bed with you now, a leanbh.’
‘But Mam, it’s only nine o’clock.’
‘Do as your mother says!’ Pa roared from the fireside.
Frankie blinked. Agnes jumped and her two feet lifted almost clean off the floor and landed back on the same two tiles. Frankie knew that it was hard to land exactly in the square, without even your heel on a crack but maybe when he was as big as Agnes it wouldn’t be so hard. Frankie pushed his thumb further into his mouth.
‘It’s not fair.’ Margaret whined.
Pa’s feet turned quickly away from the fire hearth and he took a giant step across the floor. Margaret rushed to the door and ran from the room.
‘Whist, Seamus, will you stop. You’ll wake the child.’
Mam kicked her shoes off and curled and uncurled her toes. Her hand stretched down under the edge of the table cloth to rub the side of her big toe. Frankie watched the fingers rubbing the red bump under the nylon stocking. The sound was soft and whooshing.
‘Bring the tea over like a good girl, Agnes.’
Agnes carried the pot over and Mam stood up to pour the tea. He couldn’t make a single sound, not even a peep, not even if the tea spilled out over the cups and ran down the table and poured onto him, scalding him. Not even then. He pushed himself back as far as he could away from the dangerous tea and away from the two big shoes that moved in under the table and stopped right beside Frankie’s bum.
He was caged in by the chair legs now and his eyes started to droop. Frankie wanted to climb out and onto his Mam or Agnes’ lap. The voices above him seemed to fade in and out. There was the sound of cups and saucers and spoons and of tea being poured from the large pot. That sound made Frankie want to pee and he gave a slight whimper but no-one seemed to notice.
‘It’s too late to phone now,’ his father said.
‘I know that. I’ll call first thing in the morning,’ his mother replied.
‘I’ll go up to the post office in the morning to get the money for the fare,’ his father continued. His voice was strange, as if he had a cold or was being strangled.
‘How much will she need?’
‘Sure how would I know? Mary will tell me and once she gets there Mary will look after her.’
‘But I don’t want to go.’ Agnes spoke for the first time.
‘You don’t want to go,’ her father yelled and crashed his hand on the table making them all jump. ‘You should have thought of that when …when ..,’ and then his voice broke and for the first time in his short life Frankie heard his father cry, a hard shuddery sound that frightened Frankie and he cried out and his mother lifted the table cloth and his hiding place had been discovered and he had been caught up in his mother’s arms and brought straight upstairs to his bed, his father scolding in the background and Margaret roaring from upstairs that she was fed up always getting the blame for everything.
Then Agnes was gone. Over the following weeks there were rows and tears and Margaret complaining about ‘that selfish cow, Agnes’ and through it all Frankie kept watch on the driveway in the hope that his older sister would reappear. Gradually the few photos capturing his smiling sister disappeared until little by little Agnes herself became little more than a hazy memory.
For many years in periods of stress Frankie had woken to a particular dream. He had never understood its significance. He dreamt he was a young child waking to the sound of doors banging, of someone crying. He saw himself coming slowly down the stairs holding tightly to Teddy and then running to his mother who stood on the doorstep, her fist in her mouth. He remembered wrapping his free arm around her leg as they watched pa’s big black car drive off around the side of the house and out the open gate onto the main road. As his mother closed the door a single magpie swooped from the chestnut tree and hopped across the lawn its laugh mocking the very air around them.
The letter, carefully unfolded, lies now open on the kitchen table announcing the existence of one Kate Malone, Agnes’ daughter, retired and searching for her roots, curious to see where her late mother’s family hailed from and to know if there are any surviving relatives, if there are any second cousins she could claim. And now here is Frankie, sixty four years of age, his hand on his chest, wiping tears from his eyes and remembering. He sighs and thanks God that it was he who had received the letter for he suspects his sister Margaret would not have replied to this newly discovered niece. But he had.
Frankie knows that he needs to get some sleep before Kate arrives but first he must root out the tin biscuit box full of photos. He fetches it from the cloakroom in the hall and withdraws a photo, the one that he found when clearing his mother’s bedroom. He sets it beside the copy already lying on the table and examines the somehow familiar eyes. He flips it over to read the inscription, ‘Mom, Ballina, 1942.’ A second photo–recent and in colour–of a grey -haired woman, the same eyes smiling out at him. The inscription on the back of this ‘Mom, Christmas 2010.’ Young Kate might have more answers to his questions than he has to hers.
Patricia Wallace was born in Dublin and spent a year in France as an ‘assistante d’anglais’ before qualifying with a Bachelor of Arts degree from UCD. She now lives in County Meath. She is currently working on her debut novel The Lace Maker which is set in Ireland and New Mexico. Patricia received an Arts Council Travel and Training Grant in 2010 to attend the Taos Writers’ Conference and undertake research for her novel. She has recently been awarded an M.Phil in creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. Aside from her novel, Patricia writes short stories and poetry. She also teaches creative writing in a Secondary School in Dublin, Ireland.
–Art by Zak Milofsky