There are a few things I found out about my Aunt Bernie before she died. The first I learnt the week Bernie watched my eldest sister Edna for our parents.
It was the sixties. My Aunt was twenty years old and had sinuous blonde hair with its own agenda. None of us girls had ever met her before but father had to get back to work and so Edna was put into our aunt’s care.
‘Thank you Bernie,’ Mother told her. ‘Theresa’s night terrors have become horrendous…well you couldn’t imagine how bad, not in your wildest dreams.’
Mother was taking Theresa to a renowned therapist across the water to closer examine her troubles.
You know, I wondered who Bernie was at first; well I had just gotten off the carousel you see, everything was still a haze. She started off the week by taking Edna for a huge hike around the village, they rounded back on themselves and out into the woods where she pointed at the things that seemed to sprout miraculously from the growth, saying ‘they are foxgloves’ and ‘there is a four-leafed clover’, addressing my sister with her back to her.
At Bernie’s little weather-greyed house she floured lamb and peeled waxy skins from the potatoes to make a humungous helping of stew. Bernie ate a couple of spoons of it as the stew plumped in the pot, blowing first so it wouldn’t burn. She set a hearty portion in front of Edna that I know she had never seen the like of. Bernie was showing her inexperience and foreignness as she watched Edna eat. She stood about looking unsure of what to do with herself. Tumbler after tumbler of whole creamy milk she decanted; no refills but a squeaky new glass every time. It was as though my Aunt Bernie was glad to have someone else to make her space unclean, whereas she herself gathered that hair to one side to sip mouthfuls of water straight from the tap.
At the first inkling of a yawn Aunt Bernie showed Edna to the spare room leaving glasses to cloud and pots to flake. She lingered by the bed giving my sister a dutiful kiss goodnight and backed her way into the hall where she waited, peeking out of the net curtains every few moments. Bernie was trying to catch the priest before he would call at the front door. When he eventually appeared Father Kennedy was complete, his pretext of books under one arm that he would trade for the stack Bernie had arranged on her kitchen table. They exchanged the same novels back and forth hoping no one in the village paid any heed. It looked, after all, like a routine gesture of goodwill from an eager young priest, bringing comfort and distraction in the form of fiction to a young woman living away from her only family; a woman who had suffered shock like my mother, father and sisters, but Bernie, in her distance, had the added conundrum of grieving something she never had.
She beckoned Father Kennedy to slip around the side of the house where she opened the back kitchen door for him.
‘My eldest niece is staying,’ Bernie told him.
He seemed to be about to tell her to forget their visit this once before he thought the better of it; it would draw more attention if she were to turn him away. Anyway no one seemed to be watching and Bernie didn’t want him to go; more than ever she did not want it.
Pressing her ear against the spare room door my aunt was satisfied Edna’s breathing was weighty enough to give them time and privacy.
Through the rounded gable end window Father Kennedy sat in good view of the lane until the sun left the sky as if it had been bled away. He played out his part of their ritual with the delicious thrill that someone would pass by and notice how long he sat there, that someone would hear how they were not talking about books or grief but sat instead in a heated silence. And what would said someone think if they saw how much comfort they both gained from the quiet?
Father Kennedy stayed at the rickety kitchen table with a book opened in his hands and his finger running along each line of prose as it trembled slightly against the page. Bernie went to the cupboard to fetch a blade from her barely sufficient toolkit. Away from the window she set about slicing a cigarette lengthwise and separating the tobacco to tumble into skins she had already licked and joined together. Into the crease she crumbled cannabis over the top with long soiled fingers burnt orange at the tips. Twiddling thumbs rolled the paper into a taut reel, she held it between her lips as she led the young priest to her bedroom.
At her parish-donated dressing table my aunt removed the oak chair from the space below the mirror and between the drawers, wedging the high back of it under her round brass door handle while Father Kennedy took his robe off and put it carefully onto a hanger and into her wardrobe of frocks. He cushioned the close with his fingers before Bernie had the chance to permeate his fabric with that warm acrid scent he only knew from her.
Aunt Bernie took her silver lighter out of the top drawer and lit up. She sucked at the joint then shifted it to her other hand so that she could touch the point where his part was pressed firmly against his briefs before she sprung it free. After removing thick black boots and a long floral dress she climbed on top of it, rocking away until sweat polka-dotted her tanned back. Bernie cried in some spectral sound as they burned together like her two ringed hob.
Afterwards they lay back to back, Bernie still smoking and Father Kennedy closing his eyes and darkly muttering as if he was memorising something against his will. Then they changed back, her into her dress and him blanketed in black.
The priest picked up Bernie’s books from the table. He crossed himself, then her in turn, within the framework of the door. When he had trekked down the lane past Bernie’s grove of moonlit trees she turned the key in the lock and lifted one of the books he’d left. It would accompany her back to bed. She snuffed out the cigarette stub against the moisture of a potato peel and exhaled through her nose. All the dirt annoyed her.
Aunt Bernie headed back to her room where she slipped inside her covers. One side of them still smelt of Father Kennedy. She spread out the book sleeve and saw the same first paragraph over and over, unable to get past it. Bernie lifted the pillow instead, the one he had rested his head on briefly. She kissed it as though it was his lips. The Father’s mouth it seemed was a stranger to her.
One day when Bernie was twenty five she left her office in the town to eat cheese sandwiches in the park. She saw a man sunbathing bare chested on the grass. He had a swallow tattoo on his arm that her eye landed on. He stared back. Bernie sat down on the verge rustling open the brown paper bag in her hand.
‘Where can a fella find a cold drink and a beautiful woman for company around these parts?’ he asked her and he was so handsome that even his aquiline nose didn’t take anything away from the fact.
Bernie had got to the stage in her life when she no longer worried about what people thought of her, only the good thoughts, so she said,
‘There’s a good hotel down there that does a mean Tom Collins, so I’m told.’
Louis buttoned his white shirt back onto him. They walked to the lobby and into the bar, smiling demurely, unable to keep up the push of their flirtation.
‘I like your tattoo,’ Bernie said between sips.
‘You should get one,’ Louis told her.
‘No. I would never,’ she hit him playfully.
‘You can do anything you want.’
So Bernie stood up from her stool and said, ‘Oh I know I can.’
She walked to the hotel reception and asked for an available room, said it was for Mr and Mrs Smith and Louis was wide eyed and in awe. The receptionist handed her the key which Bernie clutched close to her heart which was pounding harder than she’d ever known it. The carpet was like an endless sand that shushed under the heels of her work shoes.
She would later tell her boss that she fell ill during her lunch break and had to go home immediately. For that moment Aunt Bernie let herself into the room with its tea tray and layers of sheets and cushions and she pushed Louis against the wall and her lips against his. She was ecstatic he was glad to kiss her back, and he wanted to touch her and look at her with his hands throbbing like the sea edge.
For a little over two years every time Louis was stationed in the town Bernie would meet him. She didn’t even seem to care that he may have a girl in every town as the women in the office would tell her. Louis was hers when he was hers and my aunt didn’t want anything more from him than that. Bernie still took Father Kennedy in between times; only when she was lonely. She started to read the books he brought her and strike up conversations about them. At first he was confused, then he confused Bernie when he brought up the bible and how much it meant to him.
‘Let’s not mention that book,’ she said.
Father Kennedy started to fall for her, it was obvious by the way he would try to kiss her and try to be on top. And by the way Bernie turned her head away and held his hands down with hers it was obvious she didn’t feel the same.
One grim evening a woman came to the house, she came recommended by one of the office girls. She told Bernie to lie on her bed with layers of towels and sheets below her. She proceeded to put a plastic tube where Bernie let Louis and Father Kennedy go. She poured water and soap into a funnel. As the lemon morning sun emerged to cleanse the sky the sporadic lights of an ambulance ripped and wailed as they sped my aunt away. By then the woman had left with the money and every stratum of Bernie’s bed was cauterised red where she had writhed around all night in stormy ovations.
After that she only came out in the summer, like foxgloves, like the swallow tattoo she had a gnarly looking man in town etch onto her tummy. As she got older Bernie would breathe steam on to the gable end window to distort and fuzz the view. She would strip naked as a newly hatched bird and walk around, watering the house plants and reading the books she had chosen for herself.
When Bernie had raised enough money she erected a seven foot fence around the bucolic property and took to her garden, coming out from the kitchen like from a cave, untrammelled with her shoes in hand and covered in baby oil from head to toe.
Bernie would lie on her sun-lounger with her feet together and knees bent. Her palms together and elbows bent. She looked to me, from where l sat, like two diamonds that met at her navel as she revelled in the lick of heat and rotated to get a nice even colour. The long frowzy hairs on her armpits and nether regions rippled in the breeze like the oven cooked foliage in the field.
Aunt Bernie holds onto the leather reigns as the hobby horse goes up and down. For some reason she looks surprised to see me.
So I say, ‘Imagine seeing you here. We meet at last Auntie.’
‘Mabel is that you?’ she asks.
‘One and only.’
I get onto the carousel beside her. I have no intention of staying there long, just long enough to help her off it because she is getting older now. Bernie’s hair is like parched grass, her bare breasts dip almost to her belly where the swallow has crinkled on crepe paper skin. I spirit the music to stop and the air around us to reflect a scene from the day mother was taking my sisters and I into the city. I am wearing the dress I have on me now. Aunt Bernie sees us girls run up the bank to the platform, the whistle is blasting. I don’t need to look, I watch her eyes.
‘What’s this?’ she laughs. ‘Just a snippet or a best-of video?
‘Just keep on watching,’ I say. ‘You need to see this. Do you see Theresa and I? Two little sinners lagging behind mother and Edna?’
‘I do.’ She looks straight at me. ‘Mabel! That wasn’t very nice! You just hit your little sister.’
My horse stops moving, so does Bernie’s, we are suspended on metal poles.
‘Listen for the train,’ I say and she watches Theresa’s eyes so I will them to zoom in, so she can get a better look at that spite; that malice. We hear the rumble. Scrape of metal. Bernie can feel the rush of air from that day. I turn to see it making all our skirts lift; it’s like an old rerun by now. I watch Bernie as she sees Theresa judge the distance of the slowing beast. Theresa is glancing around at this point then placing both hands on my chest and pushing me away like some disregarded doll; smashed to bits by the train’s flat blunt nose. Bernie lets out a shriek.
‘But you knew how I went,’ I say.
‘I didn’t know how!’ She is as horrified as she can be.
‘You left that person everything,’ I say bitten.
Aunt Bernie puts a hand on each cheek, ‘I had no one else Mabel, only Edna…and your mother.’
‘Why not one of them? Why give Theresa your house?’ I ask.
‘Your mother abhorred me Mabel. And when Edna stayed with me…well she never lifted a finger, not one dish did she wash. But Theresa always seemed vulnerable I suppose.’
‘I’m disappointed Aunt Bernie, I can’t lie. I thought you were different.’
‘But you are long dead dear,’ Bernie says. ‘I had to go on what I knew when I was alive. At any rate it’s my house, my decision.’
But I had been there so many times over the decades I thought it was home.
Our horses restart on their vertical journey and the gleeful music picks up again. Bernie holds my hand in hers, going slack then snug as we travel in different directions, never up nor down at the same time.
‘Aren’t you glad to finally see me? I’m certainly glad to see you Mabel.’
‘I saw you all the time, after the train incident…’ I say, but of course I am glad of the company. I’ve longed to meet Bernie and tell her the proper way of things; I died too young to stop caring what others think.
I notice Aunt Bernie’s patch on her side, and the other where the flesh on her thigh was taken from. Two square scars. Different shades of the same skin.
‘You should have used sun cream.’ I pout like the child that I am and always will be.
She starts to look queasy.
‘Listen Auntie if you want off you’ll need to see what’s happened since you left, that’s how they decide the next step.’
I propel the little grey house into the atmosphere. Inside it Theresa sits in Bernie’s room, she touches all the dresses in her wardrobe.
‘Which one should I wear to the Gala Ball?’ Theresa asks her husband who is perched on the bed with an insouciant smile. ‘This one’s proper vintage don’t you think? But not these ones, these are Auntie’s old-woman-clothes. Straight to the charity shop with you.’
‘See what she’s like?’ I say.
‘Should we be watching this?’ Bernie asks. ‘Your mother and I were always told not to open other people’s correspondence in case…’
‘In case you saw something you couldn’t live with.’
Bernie smirks, ‘Really, your mother told you girls that too?
‘She did. And you can live with anything you see now Auntie. It’s one of the perks of being dead.’
Bernie raises an eyebrow at me.
‘Did you ever see something you shouldn’t have Mabel?’
Her seatbelt unclasps and she climbs down from the painted horse.
‘A few times,’ I say trying to avoid looking at her hair down there that has turned to dandelion fluff.
We sit on the gate. I swing my legs and Bernie touches her side, I can tell she is delighted the scars are going. I wonder how many seconds it will take for her to notice her hair is returning to gold.
‘It’s funny up here,’ I say. ‘There are no awkward silences. It’s because I know people so well by the time they get here.’
‘But who knows you Mabel?’ Bernie asks.
‘Everybody thinks they know children. We’re all the same, all one-dimensional unlike you adults. Even when our minds have got older people still see young souls. It makes everything easier.’
‘I was never any good around kids,’ Bernie breathes out.
I can’t see her hand but I know what is in it. No one needs to tell me what that fragrance is; heaven smells like marijuana, it has done since the day I got here.
Kelly’s writing has featured in The Stinging Fly, Long Story Short, Wordlegs, The Bohemyth, Poetry Bus and other journals.
Her poetry collection Three Primes was published by Lapwing Belfast, 2013. Kelly edits The Incubator and was awarded an artist’s grant by Arts Council NI.
–Background Art & Skull by Zak Milofsky
–Art of woman in bath by Lisa Griffin