Authors: Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick
Mercy of St. Jude
Mercy of St. Jude
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador2011
Â© 2011, Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF), and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador through the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation for our publishing program.
All rights reserved. No part of this work covered by the copyrights hereon may be reproduced or used in any form or by any meansâgraphic, electronic or mechanicalâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. Any requests for photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems of any part of this book shall be directed in writing to the Canadian Reprography Collective, One Yonge Street, Suite 1900, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1E5.
Cover design by Maurice FitzgeraldLayout by Amy FitzpatrickPrinted on acid-free paper
Published byCREATIVE PUBLISHERSan imprint of CREATIVE BOOK PUBLISHINGa Transcontinental Inc. associated companyP.O. Box 8660, Stn. ASt. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador A1B 3T7
Printed in Canada by:TRANSCONTINENTAL INC.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Fitzpatrick, Wilhelmina, 1958-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Mercy of St. Jude / Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick.
PS8611.I895M47 2011Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C813'.6Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C2011-901879-9
For the men in my life - Keith, Ian and Michael.In memory of my Aunt Beth.
PART TWO: 1932-1955
PART THREE: 1993-1994
PART FOUR: 1999
The coffin is mirrored in the night-black window. A gust of wind batters the pane, exploding the image. Within moments it settles back into place.
Annie Byrne looks past the reflection, shifting her focus to the houses of their neighbours, the patches of lawn struggling to survive on the rocky hillside. Several old tires filled with dirt line the side of her parents' yard, her mother's attempt to nurture a few flowers if the sun ever shines again.
Down the street a car pulls up. The door opens, closes. Annie stares intently at the dark sedan. No one gets out. She gives her head a shake; of course it's not him.
She turns away from the window. Against the opposite wall, the open casket rests on its bier, overwhelming the small room. The faded couch and worn wingback chairs have been shoved together in the corner to make space for it. Above the coffin, a crucifix. Pictures of saints line the walls, and on the wood veneer coffee table, surrounded by holy candles, sits a statue of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus in her arms. The television is covered with a dark throw. The usual knick-knacks and doilies are gone; Annie's mother has put them away at this solemn time.
Annie does not feel solemn. She feels angry. And guilty, of course. What she wouldn't give for one last chance to confront Mercedes, to ask her what had made her so miserable that she couldn't bear to see anyone else enjoying life, especially Annie. But it's too late for that.
There is a clatter of dishes from the kitchen. “I said I'll wash up later, Mom,” she calls down the hall.
“That's okay,” Lucinda calls back. “Stay put and catch up with your cousins.”
Annie still regrets having let her mother talk her into coming home. Two days earlier in Calgary, she'd been jarred awake by the phone, her heart racing with the panic of a call before dawn. The news did nothing to slow it down - Mercedes Hann was dead. Annie had held the phone tight, trying to stifle her resentment and her tears. The contradiction was not unusual where her great-aunt was concerned.
As she'd listened to the sadness in her mother's voice, she pictured her on the other end of the line, gently rounded with the years but still attractive at fifty.
“Never mind what trouble there was between you,” Lucinda had insisted.
Annie had been adamant. “I'm not coming, Mom.”And I'mnot sad she's dead.
“Just for a couple of days. It's the least you can do.”
“No, the least I can do is stay here.”
“Always with that mouth. Bad as Mercedes herself, you are.”
“Well, thanks for that.” As a child, Annie had been flattered when her mother compared her to Mercedes, until she began to realize that it wasn't necessarily meant as a compliment. As an adult, Annie never took it as such.
“I don't know when you got so hard.”
“I am not hard,” Annie protested. She lowered her voice. “I'm just tired, Mom.”
“Think of the family. I don't ask you for much, Annie, the Lord knows I don't.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Look, it's five-thirty in the morning here. Let me wake up, will you?” Annie took a slow breath and lied. “I don't think I can get away from work.” As a junior geologist in a large oil company she'd hardly be missed.
“Annie, the woman is deadâ”
“See? She won't even notice.”
“And before she died,” Lucinda continued as if she hadn't heard, “she said you had to be here.”
“What the hell for?”
“I don't know but your grandfather promised her you would be. So if you won't do it for her, do it for him. She was his sister and he's right torn up about it.” She paused for effect. “Did you know the doctor's worried about his prostate again?”
Good one, Mom- Annie almost said it out loud. If anything happened to Callum Hann, Annie would be heartbroken, which Lucinda well knew. From her earliest memories of drifting off to sleep in his overstuffed rocker, to the winter evenings curled up by the fire, listening to the stories her sisters never cared for, her grandfather had given Annie a sense of her history and herself that she could not have gotten elsewhere, especially from her mother, and certainly not from Mercedes who, when it came to family history, was a closed book.
“Fine, all right, enough with the frigging guilt trip.” The words were no sooner out than Annie regretted them. Why did their conversations so often end in argument, with her mother indignant and Annie remorseful? “I'll do it, okay?”
Now here she is, staring at the crucifix on the wall. Below it, nestled in a bed of white satin, a set of rosary beads winding through her interwoven fingers, rests Herself, the Great Mercedes Hann, whose dying wish had been to spend her final days being waked in Lucinda and Dermot's living room.
Across from the coffin Annie's father smiles in his sleep. Annie sits beside him and smoothes back his grey hair. It's thinner than she remembers. He's aged the last few years; his cheeks are more hollow, his forehead more lined. He yawns, his false teeth clacking as they ease out of position. Realigning them with his tongue, he smacks his lips together and opens his eyes. He smiles at her and gestures toward her cousins, Pat and Aiden Hann. “Just like the old days, you three sitting here.”
Annie smiles back. At the end of the day, maybe her mother was right. It is good to be here with them all. She and Pat and Aiden were born within a thirteen-month span of each other. They'd gone through school together too, as a result of Pat being held back in Grade One. Growing up, they were always up to something, from hopping the spring ice pans when they were little and forbidden to go near the water, to skipping Saturday night Mass so they could smoke cigarettes and drink beer with their friends in high school. Thanks to “the boys” as Lucinda calls them, Annie had gotten into trouble far more often than her sisters.
They hear the front door open and close, followed by footsteps padding down the carpeted hallway to the kitchen.
“Looks like we're not done yet,” says Dermot, easing himself upright and reaching for the bottle on the table. He's already had a few, yet his hand is steady as he pours. He passes Annie a dram of his special stash, reserved for weddings and funerals. He'd cracked it open earlier that evening when Father James stopped by. The heady aroma of incense lingers in the room.
Annie takes it gratefully. “Thanks, Dad.”
His hand touches her cheek. She reaches up and holds it there an extra moment.
Dermot pours two more. He gives one to Aiden and holds the other out to Pat. “Don't suppose you'd care for a drink?”
“I'm not here for the company.” Pat takes a quick swallow.
Dermot starts to sit down then changes direction to turn off the larger lamp and light the candles. The mustard-coloured walls take on a golden hue. He leans against the coffin and nods. “That's better.”
His Newfoundland brogue thickens with every sip of whiskey. Annie has heard her own voice grow flatter and faster since arriving home. In Calgary, she speaks more slowly and with clearer diction, a consequence of too many patronising remarks about her quaint accent.
Pat springs to his feet. “What the Christ are we going to do all night, sit and look at her?” His right hand, sporting a tattoo of a Celtic cross, runs through his overgrown dirty blond mane and matching scruffy beard, so unlike his brother, whose fine dark hair is always neatly trimmed, his face always clean shaven.
“Be one of the more peaceful nights you ever spent with her,” says Annie.
“No more than you.” He takes a sizeable drink then frowns at the small amount remaining in his glass. “She wouldn't even want me here.” His voice is sullen.
“I thought I was finally shed of her, too,” Aiden says. In recent years he'd been a frequent driver for Mercedes, running errands and generally being at her beck and call. It was the least he could do, she'd preached, after she'd helped him get an early parole.
“Now, now, sure you knows it's bad luck to be leaving a dead body unattended,” Dermot reminds them. “Besides, she'll be six feet under this time tomorrow.”
A draught blows in through the open window. Annie inhales the salt air coming up off the bay. A five-minute scramble down the hill behind her parents' house would have her feet in the Atlantic. As a girl she liked to watch out the kitchen window on a stormy day, snug by the wood stove, cocoa in hand. When the wind died down, she'd spend hours scouring the rocks, looking for treasure the raging sea might have flung up onto the beach. On calmer days she'd scale the cliffs along the shore. Hugging the layered rock face, she'd scan the waves, imagining what it would be like to be caught up in that great big ocean, unprotected by family, far away from everyone she knew.
The breeze makes the candles flicker. Their shadows dance on the wall and the coffin, leaving Annie with the unnerving impression that the corpse itself has moved. A shiver runs down her back. “Good Lord, I could have sworn Mercedes was about to rise up from the box.”
Pat hurries to shut the window. “That's nothing to joke about, Annie.”
“Always thought she had unfinished business with you, Pat.” Aiden leans back in his chair, his stocky limbs stretching out in all directions like a contented cat. His stutter is barely perceptible these days, thanks to countless hours talking to himself in the mirror. It still shows up occasionally when he's drinking.
“Frig off, Aiden. You're just tempting Satan with that kind of talk.”
Pat turns abruptly as the living room door opens. Sadie Griffin pokes her head in.
“Speak of the devil,” he whispers, sitting down next to Annie.
Sadie clip-clops in as if she owns the place, talking non-stop and charging the room with her unique aroma of yesterday's sweat and cheap perfume. In Annie's memory, Sadie has never changed. She's always been a little, grey-haired busybody.
“My dear Dermot, I just finished setting out Father James's brekkie and I thought I had to drop in to see our Mercedesâ¦”
Annie groans under her breath. “Just what I frigging need.”
Pat nods sympathetically. More than anyone, he knows that Sadie Griffin is the last person Annie would want to see. “She'shere twice a day.” He leans closer, his voice low. “Old bag thinks she's family or something.”
In fact, the families are connected on several fronts. Mercedes' mother and Sadie's father were brother and sister. And Sadie's husband, Angus, was the son of their stepsister, Nell, who was also Dermot's mother by a different father. It's an incestuous muddle that does not sit well with Annie's family, although it doesn't seem to bother the Griffins.
On top of that, fifty years earlier Angus's father, Paddy, also known as the town pervert, convinced Mercedes' senile father, Farley, to go to Toronto with him. The two men were never seen again. The Hanns have mistrusted the Griffins ever since.
And rightly so, in Annie's opinion. The Griffin lineage is riddled with undesirables, heavy drinking types always on for a fight, loans left unpaid up and down the shore, illegitimate babies scattered from bay to bay. Each generation seems to perpetuate the family's objectionable ancestry more than the last.
“â¦the poor thing,” Sadie is prattling on, “she had her bad days but she was a good soul, never spared when it came to helping at the convent or them youngsters in Africa, sending money when yourselves hardly made ends meet, such a wonderful womanâ¦” She barely pauses for breath, her covetous eyes touching everything and everyone along the way as her kitten-heels clack across the wood floor to where Dermot stands by the coffin, whiskey glass in hand. “â¦hard to let go isn't it, Derm, though Lord knows you weren't that lovey-dovey when she was alive but you got to leave her in peace.” Sadie's voice rises in pained, cheerful admiration. “Some lovely in that black dress, my, it does become her with them silvery tresses, imagine never needing a dye job, never looked better.” She dabs her dry eyes and takes Dermot's empty glass and plunks it down on the coffee table. “Now, Derm, leave her be so she can go with the Lord, and come back out to the kitchen and we'll get a cup of tea into you before I heads out the road, it'll fix you right upâ¦” Still nattering, she tucks her arm into his and hustles him out of the room.
Pat waits until the door shuts behind them. He nudges Annie. “Remember that night we wrote on her sidewalk?”
“Christ, don't remind me. âANGUS IS GAY, SO THEY SAY,' in red spray paint. Sadie scrubbed at that for days. Finally had to cover it over with black shoe polish.”
“He was still a goddamn fag, no matter what colour you paint it,” says Aiden.
“And you're still a homophobe.” Annie wags a finger at him. “Better be careful, Aiden. A gay friend of mine in Calgary says there's a little bit of queer in all of us.”
Pat holds out his palms as if weighing the options. “Gay or Sadie? I'd pick gay.”
“Redneck Calgary?” Aiden looks doubtful. “Didn't think they had queers out there.”
“I'd rather be one there than here, with small-minded gossips like Sadie running the place.” Annie sighs. “Poor Mom, just what she needs tonight, Sadie in there shaking her tail feathers at Dad.”
They all nod knowingly, for therein lies another point of contention between the two families. Years before, Dermot and Sadie had been going around together, but once he laid eyes on Lucinda, Sadie was salt. And who would blame him? Except Sadie, who was more likely to blame Lucinda anyway.
“I'm telling you, Annie, that one still got the hots for your father,” Aiden says. “He'll be lucky to make it down that dark hallway in one piece.”
“Don't be so foolish, Aiden,” Pat scoffs. “They're all too old for that nonsense.”
“Mom'll be getting rid of her some fast.”
Sure enough, within the minute they hear the front door open, followed by Sadie's voice. “We'll be seeing you tomorrow, Lucinda, and now go get some rest, you're looking that dragged out you are and call me if you needs anything, what's family for now, Lucinda dear, just call anytime.”
There is a mumble, presumably from Lucinda. The door shuts extra firmly.
“Did you hear her going on? âSome lovely in that black dress.'” Aiden's imitation of Sadie is bang on. “âSilvery tresses' my arse.”
“âNever looked better,'” adds Pat. “What a stupid thing to say.”
As Annie listens, images of Mercedes drift through her mind, unsmiling, serious, alone. Mercedes had only ever seemed to thaw when she was with Callum or Lucinda, or Gerry Griffin, of course. Once upon a time she was like that with Annie too, but that was before the day they faced each other down. “You'll be a nothing in a nothing town,” had been her aunt's parting shot. Annie, her heart filled with hurt, had fired back, “Fuck you, Mercedes.”
So why now does she feel this strange compassion? Because Mercedes died a spinster? Because she never enjoyed the routine contentment of sharing her bed with someone who loved her, of finding a warm, wanted body next to hers in the black of night? At least Mercedes had made that decision herself.
She hadn't allowed Annie the choice. For that Annie would never forgive her.
The cool June wind whips up off the waves, over the breakwaterand onto Water Street. An empty chip bag flies up off theground. It soars for a moment, then drops. Every now andthen, a whiff of decaying seaweed, of dead fish perhaps, rushesup from the shore. Sadie Griffin is small against the wind, insignificantagainst the force of the ocean. Still, she moves forward,her path almost straight. Sadie barely notices the cold.Indignation keeps her warm.
Goddamn Hanns. Frigging Lucinda. Fed up with the lot of them.
Sadie's hand catches at the thin scarf around her neck. The wind has loosened it so that one end has come free and is whipping about high in the air. She pulls it down, tucks it into her coat and forges onward.
Door practically hit me on the arse she shut it so hard. Pity poor Derm, stuck with that one forever. And them two brothers, not a decent brain between the pair of them. To think they used to make fun of my Gerard. Well, look at them all now. Gerard showed them, he did. And that Annie. I knows all about her, I do. Too chicken to lift her head up in the parlour there. Couldn't even look me in the eye. Thank God I got Gerard away from that little tramp. Imagine messing around with one of them Hanns. Hah! One Hann less now Mercedes bit the biscuit.
Sadie looks up only when she passes the priest's house.
Lights off. Good, I didn't forget. Wonder what Father will have to say tomorrow. Father James, now there's a good one. Wouldn't mind cleaning his house. Fine looking man. Fine arse on him, too. Nothing better than a priest.
Sadie looks at her watch. She picks up speed, elbows bent, fists into the wind.
Gerard be here soon. Home to his mother. Ah, Gerard. My Gerard.
Gerry Griffin eases up on the accelerator. He turns off the highway and onto the road leading into St. Jude. He rolls down the window and listens, trying to distinguish the ocean from the noise of the engine and the wind flying past the car. Before he hears it, he sees it, the white tips dancing on a sea of black. It's one of the few things he misses.
He takes the first right up a street of middle-class houses, some well kept, others not, all in better shape than the one he grew up in. Two doors down from her house, he pulls over. He draws a long, deep breath. The instant he opens the car door he sees her. He pulls the door shut. She stands in the window, her face more clear to him than is possible at this distance, the fair skin framed by almost-black hair, shorter now but still thick, the distinct line of her nose that comes to a small sharp point above her lips, her mouth, soft and full. And her eyes. He has pictured her face every day for five years; always he stops at her eyes, one moment green and warm as late-summer grass, the next, so vulnerable, so wounded. Always he is left with that memory.
She moves away from the window. He is about to open the door again when he realizes that his face is wet with tears. This is not how he wants her to see him.
He drives on, down Main Street, past the Trade School, the town hall, the gas station. Near the centre of town is Burke's store, where old Mona Burke started selling groceries to make ends meet after her husband failed to return from a fishing trip. Over the years, extensions, including a motel wing, were added haphazardly; little of the charm of the original red barn remains. Burke's sells everything now, from groceries and fishing tackle to furniture and appliances. His mother shops there every day.
He parks in front of a small clapboard house at the other end of town. The lampshade by the door is still missing, leaving a bare bulb to illuminate the broken top step. The paint is still peeling. He wonders if his brothers drank away the money he left for repairs. This time he'll hire someone to do the job.
He's not long in the house before Sadie rushes in.
“Gerard, you're here!”
She looks windblown but otherwise much the same as when he was home six months earlier. Her dark eyes are only slightly faded and, except for the two deeply pitted frown lines on her forehead, her face is oddly smooth for a woman near sixty. On top of her head are waves of grey, her old-woman-do, he calls it. She can afford to have it coloured and styled but, even though it makes her look older, she refuses to change it. His monthly supplements would allow her to quit working if she wanted, to stop cleaning house for others and put her own feet up for a change. But she says no, she'll just grow old and die if she sits idle. She says nothing about the tidbits of gossip she picks up along the way, but Gerry knows that gossip keeps her young.
He holds out his arms. No matter what anyone else thinks about his mother, and despite the grief she has caused him, he loves her, and he knows that she loves him, more than she loves anybody, including her other three children. This is not something he is particularly comfortable with; it's a simple truth he's come to accept after twenty-five years, as have his sister and brothers.
With two strides he stands in front of her. He lifts her slight body off the floor as he hugs her, and feels her fierce strength as her short arms squeeze him tight. There is a smell of fresh peppermint and, behind that, something musty. She's been drinking.
“What you doing here so soon?” she asks when he sets her down. “Weren't expecting you till after midnight.”
“I got an early flight, then rented a car and hit the highway.”
“I'd known that, I'd come straight home. Wish you'd called.”
Gerry takes her coat and hangs it on a nail. “Didn't get a chance.” In truth, he needed time once he got here, time to see Annie. He couldn't tell his mother that.
“Well, I'm happy you're here is all I knows.” She looks him over. He knows what's coming next. “You're after losing weight. Too skinny by far. Not eating right up in that Toronto, are you? You needs a good boil-up.”
“A cup of tea would be great.”
“I got fish cakes and cod tongues, a turkey, fresh buns, beans in the oven.” She studies his face. “Why your eyes so puffy? And stop that frowning. You'll end up with holes in your head like me.”
Her hand comes up to smooth the two vertical furrows above his nose. Smiling, he does the same to her. It occurs to him how odd it would look to anyone passing by the window, both of them standing there, rubbing a spot of skin between each other's eyes. “Crazy Griffins,” they'd probably say. It would not be the worst thing they'd ever said about his family.
“So, how are you, Ma? Keeping out of trouble?”
“Don't look for trouble, it won't look for you. You're sniffling. You got a cold?”
“Just the plane. I'll be fine tomorrow. You said something about fish cakes?”
The mention of food launches his mother into action, like a holy woman on a mission from God. She slices a few rashers of fatback pork and throws them into the frying pan. Bustling to the fridge, she hauls out potato salad, mustard pickles and beets. All the while she chatters on about people he knows: Millie O'Shea's new hip, Barber Manning's failing eyesight, the ongoing fight between the Smiths and the Powers over the berry patch dividing their two properties.
Surprisingly, she hasn't yet mentioned the Hanns. Gerry is thankful for that. He does not want to discuss Mercedes. He knows how his mother feels about her, even when she pretends otherwise. And that's fine; she has her reasons for disliking Mercedes, just as Gerry has his for feeling the opposite. Their relationship was something he could never explain to his mother, ever since that September morning in Grade One when Mercedes asked him to read from the catechism. When he'd finished, she smiled directly at him. “Here is a gentleman who can read already,” she said to the entire class. From that moment on, Mercedes had treated him as a person distinct unto himself, no preconceived notions or forgone conclusions. No last name.
Out of the blue, a profound sadness washes over him. Mercedes is gone. He will never again sit with her over tea and discuss politics or work or, as in later years, family. They will never again share the pleasure of a new old book, the careful opening of the front cover, the search for written notes or autographs. The first time he was in her house he'd been mesmerized by the wall of shelves overflowing with books - some new, some old, some, even to his young and untrained eye, precious. He hadn't touched them. He'd been content to study the spines and breathe in the odour of old leather and dusty paper. He hadn't known a person could own so many books.
“There, now that's a scoff in the making.” Sadie wipes her hands on her apron. “Bet you haven't had a good feed since you were home last, what?”
Looking at the satisfied smile on his mother's face, Gerry wishes he were hungry. All he really wants is a cup of good strong tea and a moment's peace. But there's little chance of getting that now, not if he wants to keep his mother happy. And that's a job he's spent a lifetime doing.
With Sadie safely out the door, Annie heads to the kitchen for a cup of tea. A tray of Lucinda's sweet buns waits on the counter, ready for the oven come breakfast time. The cinnamon scent reminds Annie of watching cartoons with her older sisters on snowy Saturday mornings, the kitchen warm from the heat of the wood stove, the windows etched with ice. After licking every last bit of icing from their plates and fingers, she and Beth and Sara would swap pyjamas for snowsuits then head to the graveyard with their sled. Cemetery road had the steepest incline in St. Jude. Fortunately, it was also the least travelled by car. With all three of them piled on one sled, they would gain speed quickly. On a good day, they'd have to jump off before they reached bottom or risk crossing the road and ending up under the wheels of a car, or worse, over the cliff and into the ocean. Beth would swear Annie to secrecy, warning her that if Lucinda found out, she'd take away the sled for good. Beth and Sara are married now and live nearby. Annie sees them when she's home, but they're busy with their own families. She doesn't want to interfere. Her two younger sisters, Mary and Karen, are only ten and seven and have been sent to bed. Annie would like to feel closer to them but, having lived away for five years, she hasn't been around them enough tomake a meaningful connection.
Annie is surprised to see her uncle, who's just home from New York for his sister's funeral, sitting at the kitchen table. “Uncle Joe, what are you doing here?”
He takes a small glass of brandy from Lucinda. “There's my little Annie.”
“I thought you were tying one on with Jack Griffin tonight?”
“I was that, but Jack went and got right maudlin on me, carrying on about Dad and Paddy like he always does, talking to Paddy like his ghost was there in the room. Old fool finally passed out.” Joe empties the glass and laughs. “Talked to myself for a bit but I was no better company than Jack. So I come here to say goodbye to my baby sister.” His face turns pensive. “She was a grand girl when she was little, sweet one minute, saucy the next.”
“I can't imagine her ever being a child,” says Annie. And never having met the child, she finds it hard to grieve for the woman she became.
“What makes a person go hard like that, do you know?” Joe asks.
“Maybe she couldn't help it,” Annie says, glancing at her mother.
“Life can make you hard.” Lucinda's voice is heavy and her eyes are full.
Annie realizes how tough this day has been for Lucinda. She feels an urge to comfort her, but as she reaches out, Lucinda picks up Joe's glass and moves to the sink. Annie pulls back, unsure why she made the gesture. Displays of affection between her and her mother are generally restricted to home-comings and leavings.
“Best let bygones be bygones,” Lucinda says over her shoulder. Annie would love to do that, to let go of the hurt and move past it, but even with her aunt dead in the coffin, the pain lives on. She simply does not have her mother's ability to forgive and forget, especially when it comes to Mercedes.
Mercedes had been furious when she found out that Lucinda was pregnant again at forty-two. As usual, she didn't hesitate to make her opinion known.
“Look at all the miscarriages, and the four babies who died. Good God, Dermot, don't you know any better? She's too old to be at this anymore.” She gestured to Annie's grandfather, who sat quietly at the table. “You're her father, Callum. You know what can happen. Tell her. Tell them.”
Before Callum had a chance to say anything, Dermot put his hand on her arm. “Now Mercedesâ”
She shook him off. “Don't ânow Mercedes' me, you stupid man.”
“Don't you dare call him stupid!” Although Lucinda had always tolerated Mercedes' interference - even when she quietly ignored it - she drew the line at any criticism of Dermot. “It's time you mind your own darn business.”
“I would if either one of you had any sense,” Mercedes retorted.
The two women stood there, each growing angrier by the second. Callum, always the peacemaker where Mercedes and Lucinda were concerned, hurried Mercedes from the house before harsher words were spoken.
Lucinda and Dermot had not set out to have another child. Like the rest of St. Jude, the Byrnes were Catholic. They used the rhythm method - the Pope said that was acceptable. Annie and Beth and Sara used to joke that their parents had too much rhythm. Wrapped in the innocent insensitivity of youth, they didn't stop to consider the significance of their small family, or the silent toll it took on their mother.
When Karen arrived, it was a huge relief to Lucinda and Dermot that she was normal and healthy, even if temporarily battered from a forceps delivery. On Lucinda's first day home from the hospital, Mercedes came by early to have a look, dressed as usual in her signature style. Except for the salt-and-pepper hair in its perfectly coiffed bun and the faint whiff of lavender, Mercedes lived in shades of brown, from her camel coats, taupe skirts, and beige pants and blouses, to her solid wood floors and furniture and her neutral wallpaper and parchment-coloured curtains. She presented an inconspicuous backdrop, a subtle blend of light and dark merging one into another. Her tan loafers made no sound as she crossed the floor to stand behind Annie who was studying at the kitchen table. She laid her hand on Annie's shoulder, then placed an old geology text next to her books. “I found this at the second-hand store.”
Annie looked up. “Thanks, Aunt Mercedes.” Her aunt often bought her books. She used to buy them for Annie's sisters, and for Pat and Aiden, until she realized that Annie was the only one who read them.
“A taste of university, perhaps?” Mercedes smiled then moved on to Lucinda.
The sun, an infrequent visitor to St. Jude, shone through the spring frost glazing the window. Basking in its warmth, Lucinda seemed prepared to forget the hostility that had simmered between her and Mercedes during her pregnancy. She told Dermot to take Mercedes in to see the baby.
Always the proud father, Dermot led the way into the living room where Karen slept in a well-worn bassinet. He slid back the cover that shaded his new daughter's lightly bruised face and disfigured head.
Mercedes let out a small chuckle. “Well, Dermot, let's hope she has brains.”
There was a sharp intake of breath behind them. “How dare you find fault with that child!” Everyone froze as Lucinda's words, undoubtedly fuelled by postnatal hormones, ricocheted off the flowered wallpaper. “Just because you never had one of your own, just because no man would have anything to do with you, you have to spread unhappiness everywhere you go. Well, may God forgive you and your meanness.”
Scooping the baby up in her arms, Lucinda stormed out. Mercedes stood rigid in the middle of the room. Then, without another word, she left the house.
Mercedes, presumably, had meant the comment as a joke. The problem was that her sense of humour was so rarely encountered that it went unrecognized, at least by Lucinda. As Dermot remarked to Callum, “A perpetually sour person should not go trying to be funny without giving us all a bit of warning.”
Callum and Dermot tried to convince Lucinda that no harm had been intended but she refused to back down. As for Mercedes, that afternoon she set out for her summer cabin in Bay D'Esprits with only Rufus, her huge black Lab pup, for company. Two days passed with no sign of Mercedes and no hint of compromise from Lucinda. On the third morning, Callum came by and insisted on taking Lucinda and the baby for a drive to Mercedes' cabin. When they arrived home that evening, Lucinda was in a sombre mood and spent the night secluded in her bedroom.
The next day Callum returned, a nervous-looking Mercedes behind him. He sent Annie and Sara off to the store with a hastily written list of groceries and told them not to come back for an hour.
Sara made repeated attempts to find out what had happened. Lucinda would say nothing, even when Sara enlisted Beth in the effort. As for Callum, it was one of the few times he told Annie that she should not ask questions, that some things were better left in God's hands. And even though Annie stopped asking, she never stopped wondering, because after that day, Lucinda and Mercedes' relationship changed. Where once Mercedes' presence on their doorstep might be met with a silent groan, she was suddenly invited to stay longer. Where once her advice was unsolicited, it came to be accepted, even encouraged. And where once she and Lucinda were merely of the same family, from that day forward they began to develop a deep and lasting connection.
The Most Merciful Virgin Church was the only church inSt. Jude. Non-Catholic visitors, for only visitors were non-Catholic, worshipped elsewhere. With its oversized stainedglass windows and four-storey-high crucifix, the Most MercifulVirgin was the most impressive and most beautiful buildingin town. A stone's throw from Burke's store, the churchsat at the junction of the two main roads, one of which originatedat the far end of St. Jude where the Hanns and theByrnes lived. The other led to Sadie Griffin's house. Like mostgood Catholics, Sadie would not pass a church without blessingherself.
Good Christ, she's finally out of bed.
Sadie hurried on towards the church, her fingers already swishing up and down and across her face, her eyes intent on the old blue truck parked in front of Burke's. She watched as Lucinda descended from the driver's side to plant her feet gingerly onto the gravel.
Some frigging lazy. Driving to the store instead of walking. Slackarse.
“Father have mercy on us,” Sadie recited, trotting as fast as her legs would carry her from the church to Burke's. She stopped only to catch her wind before going inside. “Lucinda, my dear, what a lovely surprise!” she exclaimed, hand on her throat. “But what are you doing out and about so soon after having another one?”
Christ, she's the size of a house still.
“Afternoon, Sadie,” said Lucinda, choosing a loaf of bread. She did not look up.
“I sees you're driving today. Can't say I blames you, barely a week out of the hospital.”
Looks like it too. Crying shame, Derm rolling over to that in the morning.
Lucinda put the bread next to a box of cereal and some instant coffee on the counter. She passed Phyllis Burke a ten-dollar bill.
“See you been to church already, too,” said Sadie. “I don't think God would mind if you took a break, you know.”
“I'm sure he wouldn't, but I feel fine.”
“Well, that's a relief.”
Some gut on her. Never know she already had it.
Lucinda took her change and turned to leave. Bessie Foley, who had been standing nearby squeezing an orange, dropped it back into the bin and raised an eyebrow at Sadie, who nodded purposefully.
“By the by,” Sadie called out, “where was our Mercedes rushing off to the other day with such a heavy foot?”
Almost run me over in the road. Driving like a maniac with that goddamn dog, barking and frothing at the mouth. Got the rabies, that thing.
Lucinda seemed not to have heard. With a wave of her hand over her shoulder, she kept on walking out the door.
Phyllis waited until she was sure the door had closed. “Car was gone three days. Where'd she get to?”
“I said as much when I saw Mercedes at the post office yesterday.” Bessie's lips scrunched in frustration. “Not a word, my dear, not one blessed word. Just one of them nods she gives, you know, with that haughty face of hers.”
“I don't know why she's so closed-mouthed. I mean, we all only wants to help sure, to be good neighbours.” Phyllis glanced at Sadie. “Your Gerry's pretty tight with her. What do he say?”
“Now Phyllis, you knows I'm not one to gossip, especially about family.”
Lot of good Gerard is. Time he spends at that house, all he talks about is odes and sonnets. Stupid poetry. History is what I wants. There's dirt back there somewhere, I knows it.
“That Lucinda now. She's not looking like herself, is she, though?” said Phyllis.
Bessie grunted. “What can you expect, having a youngster at her age?”
“True. Least she did the right thing though,” said Phyllis.
“Not like some,” Bessie tutted, “getting rid of it and all.”
Sadie raised her eyes heavenward, hands together. Phyllis and Bessie blessed themselves. All three muttered prayers under their breath.
“You seen the new one, Sadie?” said Phyllis.
“Not yet.” Sadie had dropped by Lucinda and Dermot's each of the last two afternoons. Both times, Lucinda and the baby had been in bed. “I should stop in, I suppose, being family and all.”
Phyllis eyed Sadie through the thick bottom of her eyeglasses. “Surprised you haven't already.”
Sadie placed a loaf of bread on the counter. “You know me, I don't like to intrude.”
“Some sight, they say,” said Phyllis. “Bruises and gouges all over the place.”
“Sure it's just the forceps,” said Bessie. “They'll work their-self out in no time.”
Sadie's hand went to her heart. “Pray it do for the poor thing.”
Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. I seen where it stayed that way forever. Serve them right.
“Imagine Lucinda and Derm going at it at their age.” Phyllis shook her head.
Sadie rubbed her nose and scratched her ear. She rummaged in her purse for her wallet and a tissue. She blew her nose hard. She did not want that picture in her mind.
“They don't stop, they'll end up with a bunch of retards,” Phyllis added.
Bessie nodded. “Look at poor Mavis MacDonald, sure, with three of them thick as bricks.”
Sadie leaned in and whispered, “Mavis should have looked beyond the MacDonalds.”
“And Doris and Donny Whittle.” Bessie lowered her voice. “Doris claims her maiden name was White, but I got it on good authority that she was born a Whittle up in Green Harbour. It's not right, I tell you.”
“God'll be having none of that,” said Phyllis. “Never mind them gene things.”
Sadie sighed. “Some youngsters better off not born at all.”
“And who'd know better than you, what, having to bury two of your own?” said Phyllis with an exaggerated note of pain in her voice.
Sadie glanced at her friend, but Phyllis was looking down her nose at the jar of jam Sadie had placed next to the bread and her five dollars.
Phyllis punched a few keys on the register. “What's Derm want with a baby? He's too old for that.”
“Derm's still a fine figure of a man.” Sadie's voice had risen.
Phyllis laughed. “Always with an eye for the fellows, eh Sadie?”
Bessie poked Sadie. “Especially him, what?”
“Don't be silly, Bessie. Sure he's a married man, Derm is.”
Wife's a Yankee cow, mind you.
Phyllis squinted at the five-dollar bill. “Don't stop a person looking, especially handsome as him.” A sly look passed between Bessie and Phyllis, who added, “Pity Lucinda caught him first, eh, Sadie?”
“Pity about that poor youngster is more like it.”
And a pity I got to listen to you two old biddies.
Phyllis passed Sadie her change. Bessie coughed a little too loudly and covered her mouth with her hand.
Sadie picked up her groceries and left.
Gerry lifts the lid off the pot of beans. The sweet, smoky aroma of molasses and bacon fills the room. “My God, that smells good. But you've got enough for an army, Ma.”
“Well now, I knows you don't be eating right up there in that Toronto. Sin City, that place. Got to get some good grub in you whiles you're here.”
“I'll have to buy an extra seat on the plane. Better get Gus and Kevin on it.” He glances around. “Where are they, anyway? And where's Debra?”
“At the bar. Dance there tonight. Won't be back till all hours.”
He puts the lid back on the beans. “Who's taking care of Mark?”
“He's sleeping over at Connie's. They does that, Debra and her, saves paying for babysitting.”
“And leaves Debra more money for partying. How is our Mark, anyway?”
“Talking about you ever since you were home last, Uncle Gerry this and Uncle Gerry that. Be different he had a father, I suppose.”
“Let's not go there, Ma.”
Any discussion of Mark's parentage inevitably leads to a tirade against the Hann clan. When rumour spread that Aiden Hann was to blame, Aiden not only denied it, he went so far as to say it could be any number of boys, or men. Sadie had nagged at Debra for ages to make the father, whoever he was, “pay for his sins.” Debra remained defiant. Sadie insisted that Gerry, as her older brother, have a talk with her, but when Debra told him it had nothing to do with him and he should just mind his own business, he found himself agreeing. Knowing that Aiden might have been responsible and, if so, was shirking that responsibility, did not make Gerry like him any better, but he suspected that Aiden wasn't far off regarding Debra's reputation, leaving Gerry to wonder if she wouldn't point a finger because she didn't know where to point. For that, and other reasons, he was more than willing to leave the subject alone.
Sadie flips a fish cake in the frying pan. “I'm just sayingâ”
“I know. Just let it be.” Gerry changes the subject. “Did Mark get that speech thing looked after yet?”
“I don't know. Hard to get much out of that Debra. She gets right contrary soon's you mentions anything. Get on her about it, would you?”
“Not like she'll listen to me, but I'll talk to her. It'll get worse if it's not seen to. I'd hate to have the other kidsmaking fun of him.”
Sadie tutts. “Debra has a hard enough time looking after herself, let alone a young one.”
“Yeah, well maybe some people shouldn't have children in the first place.”
“Come off it, Gerard, she does her best.”
“I'd hate to see her worst.” He takes two teabags from the canister.
“Debra never had your brains. Always was a bit slow, unless she's getting her drawers off.”
“Ma!” Gerry laughs nonetheless. His mother still shocks him sometimes.
“I'm only saying she's lucky she only got the one youngster.”
“Debra's problem is she thinks the world owes her a living.”
Sadie nods. “That's the Griffins for you. And Debra's a Griffin all right.”
“I'm a Griffin too. Don't see me waiting for the world to bring me breakfast.”
Sadie smiles and nudges a cod tongue to see if it's done. “You're more like my side of the family. The Duffies were always smarter than the Griffins.”
“Anyway, I don't want to argue about Debra. I only got two days hereâ”
“Two days?” Sadie whirls around, slightly off-balance. “How come that's all?”
“Because I've got all my vacation time spoken for.” He keeps his voice calm.
“Why? You were only home the one week.”
“I know, but I'm going to Europe next month.”
“What the frig's in Europe? French frogs slugging back the wine.”
“Now Ma, I'm always coming home.” He watches her fuss and fidget at the counter, moving food around for no apparent reason. “Besides, I'm going on business anyway so it makes sense to make a holiday of it.”
She grunts and marches into the back pantry. A few minutes later she returns, empty-handed but calmer. “So how did you get time off now if you got none left?”
“I told them my aunt died. They're pretty understanding when it's family.”
The words simmer around them, “my aunt” and “family” echoing in the stillness. He wishes he could sweep the air and make them disappear.
Sadie's cheeks are red blotches. “Your what? Aunt? Aunt, my arse.”
Gerry rubs his face vigorously with both hands. Despite himself, he feels a ridiculous grin on his face. If his mother sees that, she'll have a fit. Bad enough he called Mercedes his aunt, but if Sadie catches him smiling about it, even if he has no clue as to why he's smiling except that he's exhausted and obviously beginning to lose his mind a little, she'll disown him altogether. “Now Ma, it's just a word. Boy, but I'm starving,” he lies.
“Not just a word, Gerard, youâ”
“Stop!” He says it louder than he intends, but the guilty truth of it is that he has long thought of Mercedes as family. Sitting at her table on cold winter evenings, reading aloud from Keats or Wordsworth, or perhaps from one of Mercedes' favourites, like Dickinson or Bishop, Gerry had sometimes found himself imagining that this was his home, that his mother wasn't the town gossip whose tongue everyone feared, that his father hadn't run off with another man. Later, at home, he would try extra hard to be good to his mother. “I'm sorry,” he says now, “but I've been on the go all day. I had a presentation this morning then I was running to catch planes. I never had a decent bite. Let's just eat. Please?” He puts on his most innocent face, one he knows she can't resist. “Speaking of work, why were you at it so late? You should slow down.”
“Had to help with the Lady's Guild earlier, set up for bingo tomorrow.” She puts one of the teabags back into the canister. “Besides, work gives me a chance to visit.”
Gerry knows that his mother doesn't get many invitations out. Her work is her social life. “Do any of them even ask how you are, Ma? Do they even care?”
“Hah, some of that lot don't know you're alive once you're done with the scrub brush. I swear to Lucifer, door shuts on you and you're good as dead till you're due back with the mop.” She smiles coyly. “Then again, they're not all bad. Like that young Father James. He was just asking after you this evening. Wanted to know did you go to church up in Toronto, and make the sacraments and all.”
Gerry rolls his eyes inwardly at the priest's supposed concern. He does not go to church in Toronto. He goes only when he's home. It's easier to spend the hour at Mass than to argue with his mother about not going. He takes communion with her as well, but he draws the line at the Stations of the Cross. All that genuflecting and mumbling and crossing himself, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over and over again all around the church, it's more than even he can fake.
Sadie's head is cocked to one side. She has an odd smile on her face, sort of sly, secretive even. Gerry watches her a moment, curious as always about what goes on behind his mother's eyes, what thoughts bring that certain lift to her chin. But as much as he has learned how to deal with her over the years, and as necessary to his mental health as that has been, he still can't figure her out. For such a simple woman, she really can be quite complex.
“Yes, indeed,” she nods, “lovely man, Father is.”
“Tell Father James I'm doing just fine,” he says noncommittally.
And he is fine. Fine without the church interfering in his life. Fine without some religious know-it-all telling him what's right and what's wrong, who he should love and who he shouldn't.
He hasn't listened to a priest in five years. He's not about to start again now.
There is a large round hooked rug on the kitchen floor. The centre, the ocean, is filled with fish and dories, and all around the border are brightly dressed men and women holding hands. Annie was surprised when she'd learned that Mercedes had hooked it. The rug is warm and bright and evokes images of people celebrating, dancing round and round on a summer day.
“It's not always that easy to let bygones be gone,” Joe is saying to Lucinda.
“I know. I'm just not sure what takes more energy, forgiving or not forgiving.” There's a regretful edge to Lucinda's voice and her concentration seems far away.
“What bygones are you talking about there, Mom?” Annie, as usual, wishes she had some clue as to what went on in her mother's head. Her sisters have always been able to talk to Lucinda, about their boyfriends and husbands, their jobs or lack of, their kids. But Annie so often says the wrong thing, a wisecrack, something sarcastic or off-colour, which, although it might get a chuckle from Dermot, seldom amuses her mother. As an adult Annie has tried to be more careful about what she says around Lucinda, but they still seem unable to find a place where they can relax in each other's company.
Lucinda shakes her head as if to clear it. “Now, Annie, you know your Aunt Mercedes didn't always watch what came out of her mouth,” she says evasively.
Annie rolls her eyes. “Fine, don't tell me. You have to wonder though, is that why she never had a boyfriend?”
Joe looks startled. “Oh, but she did. After she left New York and was learning to be a teacher in Nova Scotia. Callum was so excited you'd have thought she was his own daughter getting hitched.”
“Go on! Aunt Merce was going to get married?” Annie is surprised her grandfather never mentioned it. “Who was this fellow?”
“He was from some well-to-do family in St. John's. Apparently he was heading for the priesthood till he met Mercie, so his family wasn't too happy about it.”
“Is that why they broke up?” she asks.
“I don't know. All of a sudden it was over and no one wanted to talk about it anymore. Callum only said she was moving back here to teach.”
“Mom? Did she ever say anything to you about it?”
“She was never one to talk about days gone by, was she now?”
Annie's can't disagree with that. In fact, Mercedes would often simply leave the room if someone seemed intent on dredging up old stories. Still, there's something about her mother's quick tight smile that makes Annie wonder if she knows more than she's letting on. But it's useless to push Lucinda, who can be as tight-lipped as Mercedes when it suits her. “So, Uncle Joe, tell me what was she like when she was little? What did she like to do? Did you all get along?”
Annie realizes that she really does want to know. What made the child, Mercie, happy? What did she talk about when she sat down to drink her morning tea with her father and brothers? Did they love each other dearly and talk as only family can? Who was this matriarch whom Annie has feared and even hated at times, yet whom she feels such an urge to understand despite everything that happened?
“The older boys were all gone by then, fishing or working the mines. Dad was there but he wasn't much good to us. So it was really just me and her and Cal.” He chuckles. “You know how I remembers her best? In our old clothes. We never threw out a darn thing, you couldn't afford to ever do that. Mercie would take our old shirts, roll up the sleeves, sometimes cut the bottom off. She was only five or six, I suppose. Never complained, just got on with it, wandered around the house singing, or sat with Callum at the table practising her letters and stuff.”
Lucinda leans in close and pats Joe's hand. The need in her eyes tugs at Annie, and her heart fills at the sight of these two good people attempting to recall the warmth that long ago existed in Mercedes Hann.
Annie slips into the chair next to hermother. “Shemust have been a sight in those big clothes, hey,” she prompts Joe before he loses his train of thought, “so small next to you two big galoots?” She is rewarded with an appreciative glance from Lucinda.
“Indeed she was, but at least she was warm. You should have seen us. On really cold days when you could never get yourself warm for nothing, me and her and Cal would haul our chairs to the stove and pull down the oven door. Then we'd lay a pillow there and put our feet on it.” He laughs a beautiful young laugh. “Mercie called it our fireplace. We'd warm bricks in there too, wrap them in towels to take to bed with us.”
“Must be why she put in the two fireplaces over there,” says Lucinda. “Her and Dad always had the heat raging.”
“She sure did a fine job fixing the old place up,” says Joe.
Annie is struggling to fix the child in her mind, but all she comes up with is an unsatisfactory composite of her two younger sisters. “What did she look like, Uncle Joe? I have a hard time getting a face in my head.”
“Well, my Annie, that's a good one, because she looked like you. That dark hair, and them lively eyes like you got there,” Joe says, pointing, “even your colour, kind of pale, but healthy all the same. When she was little, I used to worry she was so white, but she was never sick so I let it be. Thing is, it's not only the looks. I'd say you're like her under the skin too.” A frown darkens his face and he looks at Lucinda. “Let's hope she ends up happier, hey Luce?”
Annie pretends not to see her mother's worried nod, the disappointed sigh. “Too bad we don't have a picture from back then.”
“My, but sure we never had no camera. I remembers once, some bigwig from St. John's was out our way taking photographs for a book or something. I don't know what became of them. People didn't have money for stuff like that.”
“'Tis indeed. Pretty as a picture she was, the very image of an Irish lassie. When she was young, she always put me in mind of something.” He pauses, then continues in a soft, low voice. “She looked to me like a Sheilagh.”
Annie hears Lucinda's quick intake of breath. She glances at her mother, then back at Joe. “What's that, like a female leprechaun or something?”
“No, my Annie, a Sheilagh is a child of God.” His tone is lilting, serene. “A dark-haired Irish angel with fiery eyes and pure white skin, a vision of heaven, she is.”
“Sheilagh was Joe's daughter,” Lucinda says in a hushed tone. She wraps Joe's bony hand in her two plump, warm ones. “I know what a Sheilagh is, Joey. Our Mercie knew too, more than anyone ever imagined. There's been too many Sheilaghs in this family. Boy or girl, doesn't matter. Just ask our Beth.” She inhales a trembling breath, then gives Annie the saddest smile that Annie has ever seen.
For the life of her, Annie cannot look away. Fear grips her. Dear Jesus in heaven, she prays, please let her only be talking about our poor Beth.
The year Annie turned fifteen, Beth, who had been going out with Luke Ennis since Grade Nine, found herself “in trouble”. In a good Catholic family such as theirs this was certainly a sin, but a forgivable one as long as everyone behaved appropriately. Abortion was not to bementioned, especially in Lucinda's house.
The good news was that there would be a wedding, Dermot's favourite reason to celebrate. “A good wedding beats an Irish wake any day,” he told Lucinda when they had recovered from the news of their daughter's premarital activities. “No matter if the bride be six months pregnant or a blushing virgin.”
Poor as Lucinda and Dermot were, they didn't hesitate to pay their share for the reception and the standard meal prepared by the Lady's Guild - a scoop each of Sadie Griffin's potato salad and Ellen McGrath's coleslaw, a slice each of roast beef, turkey and ham, two sweet mustard pickles, two baby beets, a leaf of iceberg lettuce topped with a wedge of tomato, and a white dinner bun with a pat of butter. Individual plates were prepared before the Mass, spaced out along the white paper tablecloths, then covered with a bit of plastic wrap. The fact that no one contracted food poisoning from the mayonnaise in the potato salad was a wonder never discussed. Then again, any subsequent illness would likely have been blamed on the whiskey or the rum.
After struggling with the guest list for weeks, Lucinda and Beth ended up inviting far more people than they could rightly afford to feed. Besides being concerned that they might hurt someone's feelings, they also knew that they would run into everyone they hadn't invited in the weeks ahead, at the post office, at Burke's grocery store, at Sunday Mass. The list grew longer; more potatoes would have to be peeled.
An hour before the ceremony, all were shocked when Callum phoned Lucinda to say that Mercedes was sick. Illness rarely stopped Mercedes Hann. Lucinda insisted on going up to have a look at her. “I told you Dad, it's no bother,” she said into the phone. A puzzled frown settled on her face. “What?” Her voice rose just enough to cause everyone in the kitchen to stop and listen. “Fine. So be it.” Lucinda slammed the receiver onto the hook and turned her attention to Beth, who stood large and flushed in the silent room. “All right, then. Let's get you married.”
Sadie Griffin did not attend the wedding, either. Then again, Sadie hadn't been invited.
Beth and Luke were young but, except for the oversight regarding birth control, they were sensible. Deciding it would be prudent to save towards a house, they moved in with Lucinda and Dermot. Beth had quit Trades School and gotten on at the fish plant - a dirty job, but a scarce one - and Luke had been hired on at Burke's, stacking shelves, moving furniture, and whatever else was required, while training to be a meat-cutter. Still, savings from their minimum wage jobs were slow to accumulate.
Everyone knew that Mercedes Hann had money. Decades earlier, after teaching for several years, Mercedes had hired Mr. Crosbie Cunningham, a well-known financial advisor from St. John's, to guide her investments. Mr. Cunningham's name had caught her attention for several reasons, not least of which was his ability to make money for his clients. In the years that followed, Mercedes became quite a wealthy woman. She had given loans before, to her brother's widow after he was killed in the Springhill mines, to her nephew Frank Jr. when he was starting out as a fisherman, and to other family members as well. She charged negligible interest but the debtor did have to put up with her advice, which she offered freely, as if she'd acquired that right by granting the loan. She gave generously to charity as well, and not just the church. Her favourite cause was Meade House, a private home near St. John's for unmarried girls and their babies. It seemed an odd choice, considering that Mercedes was quite vocal in her opinion of premarital sex. Besides which, the girls who went there were even choosing to keep their fatherless children. To top it off, Meade House was run by Margaret Meade, an ex-nun, a woman who had forsaken the convent, perhaps even Catholicism itself. Despite it all, Mercedes never wavered in her support.
When Beth and Luke approached her, they expected to get a lecture and the loan.
“We only needs a thousand dollars,” Beth explained, her cheeks rosy in Mercedes' overheated kitchen. “But I don't think I should work much longer at the plant. I'm always tired lately, and we don't want to take a chance with the baby, right Luke?”
“Uh-huh,” he said and stuck his thumbnail back in his mouth. Luke, like so many others, had always been intimidated by Mercedes Hann.
“Well, anyway, Aunt Mercedes,” Beth said, “if we don't buy the house we'll be stuck in with Mom and Dad for ages. We'd never see a lick of privacy.”
Mercedes glanced at Beth's belly, which was huge even for seven months, then back to her swollen face. “What example do you think this is setting for your sisters?”
Beth stammered something incoherent.
“They look up to you, Elizabeth,” Mercedes continued. “As the oldest, you had a responsibility. And look what you've gone and done. Eighteen years old, unmarried, getting pregnant. For God's sake, what were the two of you thinking?”
Beth and Luke sat there mute and uncomfortable but still hopeful.
Mercedes stood up. “I certainly do feel for you, really I do. But I cannot allow your sisters to think that I approve of what you've done. I'm afraid I have to say no.”
Mercedes' refusal made Beth even more determined to buy a house. Despite her size and persistent nausea, she decided to keep working at the plant.
A few days before her due date, she sensed a lessening of movement in her belly. Lucinda and Luke took her to the hospital, where she was immediately sent to St. John's in an ambulance.
Lucinda, frantic, called for a taxi to take her home. When it pulled up, Sadie Griffin got out of the front seat.
“Whatever is the matter, girl? You looks awful,” said Sadie, standing in such a way that Lucinda could not get past her. “Bad news from the doctor?”
“It's not Dermot?”
“Derm? No, he's fine.”
“Your father? Mercedes?”
Lucinda blew out a sharp breath. “Beth's gone to town in an ambulance.”
She pushed her way past Sadie and into the car. Still, Sadie held the door open.
Lucinda yanked the door from Sadie's hands and told the driver to hurry. He sped off, leaving a spray of gravel behind him, along with Sadie clutching her bag on the curb.
Once home, Lucinda jumped into the truck. It wouldn't start, just as it hadn't that morning, and Dermot wasn't around to coax it back to life. Lucinda flung the keys out the window and across the yard.
Annie, who had been watching from the doorway, came out. “What's up?”
“It's Beth. She's in trouble.”
Annie shrugged, at fifteen more brazen than ever. “So what else is new?”
Lucinda turned on her. “Don't you care your sister's baby might be dead? She's gone to St. John's in an ambulance and all you can do is mouth off.” She glared at Annie. “You're worse than Mercedes, God help you.”
Annie couldn't move. She couldn't think past the fact that Beth really was in trouble and her mother thought she didn't care. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean it.”
“I just don't know how to stop it from happening.” Lucinda made a strange sound, somewhere between a moan and a cry. “I got to go after her.”
Annie remembered Lucinda's pregnancy two years before, how sad her mother had been when she'd returned from the hospital empty-handed. She wished her father was home but he'd left two days earlier on one of Murphy's boats and would be away at least a week. And Callum had gone to St. John's with Mercedes the day before.
“Maybe we can borrow Uncle Frank's car?” Annie suggested. “I'll go with you.”
Frank Hann was a miserly sort, but there must have been something in Lucinda's voice when she called him. Within minutes, he was there with the car.
Lucinda drove off, her foot heavy on the gas. Annie watched through the passenger window as the jagged landscape whipped by, the tough evergreens interspersed with rocky outcroppings and barren patches of land. In the distance, a dense fog hid the horizon. Annie hugged her coat closer against the fall air whistling through the crannies of her uncle's old car.
As she walked into the hospital, Annie thought she understood why Mercedes refused to enter one. The waiting room smelled of body fluids and antiseptic, of sickness and death. She tried not to breathe too deeply.
She watched her mother's fingers flying over her black rosary beads, her lips whispering feverishly. Annie had knelt through hundreds of rosaries, pretending to pray, angry with her mother for making her do something Annie professed to be a waste of time. Now, she put her hands together.
Finally, Luke was walking towards them, his face drenched with tears.
“Oh, dear God. Luke, what happened?” The fear jumping out of Lucinda's voice terrified Annie. “How's Beth? How's the baby?”
Luke stared numbly at her. “Beth is okay, but the babyâ¦he's gone.” Then he whispered in a voice that didn't quite believe what it was saying, “He's dead.”
Annie's skin shot up with goose bumps. Beth's baby would not have been baptized and so would not be free of original sin. Annie envisioned an endless line of tiny souls drifting within a vast empty space, stuck in Limbo, hanging around with no place to go, no home, no fluffy clouds, no Jesus to belong to.
Lucinda sat Luke next to Annie. “Stay with him, okay. I've got to go see Beth.”
Lucinda wasn't gone long when Annie heard a noise down the corridor. When she looked up, she was surprised to see Mercedes hurrying towards them.
“How is everything?” Mercedes' voice was rushed and anxious. “How's Beth?”
Annie tried to speak but instead started to cry. Mercedes touched her cheek and gestured for her to move over. Then she put her arms around Luke and held him.
Annie imagined Lucinda holding Beth and comforting her just as Mercedes did Luke. Annie could not remember the last time she'd felt her mother's arms around her.
There was a whispering sound next to her. She glanced over.
“Dear God, forgive me,” her aunt prayed. “I am so sorry, so very sorry.”
In that moment Annie forgot her own misery. Never before had she seen such a picture of pure grief.
The hospital that serviced St. Jude was located in Harbourville.Many citizens of St. Jude, Sadie Griffin included, feltthe facility should have been located in their town, which, at almostfour thousand people, was the largest in the area. They resentedhaving to travel four miles for medical attention. Sadie,who had never driven a car, did not like having to spend threedollars on a taxi to have a doctor examine her feet.
Witch! God, I'm some sick of her. Sick to the death.
Sadie slammed her purse onto the chair.
Frigging Lucinda. Practically knocked me over yanking that car door shut. I hadn't grabbed that fence post, I'd been face down in the dirt.
She flung her coat on top of her purse. “Make you sick.”
Sadie spun around. Gerard was studying at the kitchen table.
What's he doing home?
“Oh Ma, they're okay.”
“Okay? How can you say that, the way them brothers acts? Picking on you all the time, calling you names. Especially that no-good Aiden.”
Little prick, shouting at my boy, “Queery Gerry, your father's a fairy.” And then hurling rocks at him. Gerard got the mark on his lip to this day.
“Sure Ma, that's years ago. I don't pay him any mind nowadays.” “Like to pay him a piece of mine. Just like I did that Frank with his hand in the collection plate. I told Father, indeed I did, but he said there wasn't much he could do, my word against Frank's.”
A Griffin's word against a Hann's more like it, I felt like saying. But sure it weren't Father's fault, I knows that.
“Ah, what odds about them,” Sadie said. “Why you home, anyway? Thought you had work to do for Herself while she's away.”
Sadie knew it would annoy him to hear her refer to Mercedes as Herself. She didn't care. She'd had quite enough of the Hanns for one day.
“She left me a note saying I better study for my test instead. She paid me anyway, said it was a bonus or something. She's really good to me, you know, Ma.”
“A right martyr.”
If he starts in about what a saint Mercedes is, I'll throw up. I'll lose that lovely piece of meatloaf I had for lunch before that frigging Lucinda tried to rip the hand off me. It'll go right down the toilet. It really will, I swear to God.
“â¦ don't think I should take that money, though,” Gerard was saying.
“That one got lots of it, she won't be missing a few dollars.”
“I don't know how she even knew about the test.”
“Must have been that Annie told her. You're in the same grade, sure.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Gerard said, looking down at his books.
What's he gone so red in the face for?
Sadie laid her hand on his forehead. “You okay?”
“Just hungry.” He shifted so that his head moved from under her hand. “Where were you?”
“Over at the hospital getting them bunions looked at.”
“Can they fix them?”
“Huh? Oh, the bunions. Never mind them. They were just after taking that Beth Hann off in an ambulance. That young Annie might not get to be a aunt after all.”
Hope he's not coming down with something. Can't always tell with the forehead.
He brushed the hair out of his eyes. “Why were you so mad when you came in?”
Sadie remembered Lucinda's pinched face and how she'd pulled the door from Sadie's hand. “Nothing important. Let me get you something to eat and a cup of tea.”
He smiled at her. “Thanks, Ma.”
Look at that face. Them lovely white teeth, them big brown eyes. Most handsomest smile I ever did see. Hit the jackpot with him, I did.
“That'd be great,” he said. “I'm starving.”
Sadie smoothed his hair, letting her hand linger on the back of his head. He didn't pull away this time.
To hell with the Hanns.
Gerry looks at his watch. It's only ten thirty. He puts the lone teabag into the pot and pours boiling water over it. As he reaches for the cups, he feels his mother's hand catch his arm as she staggers slightly on her way from the bathroom.
“Steady on there, Ma,” he says, putting his arm around her.
She squints up at him, then pokes at his lip, as if the action might make the scar disappear. She'd been furious when she'd first seen the cut. Gerry hadn't told her that Aiden Hann was responsible; Sadie, as always, had her own sources. He hadn't told her it was partly his own fault either, even though he suspected she would have been proud of him. It was the morning before the Halloween party at school, and Aiden, who made a habit of picking on anyone he deemed beneath him in the pecking order, started in - was Gerry dressing up as a fairy, how many costumes did he have in his closet, did he want a mop so he could come as his mother - calling Sadie a fishwife and a charwoman and getting increasingly revved up as people started to pay attention. Gerry usually ignored the taunts and left wherever he was as fast as he could, but that day he'd had enough. He stopped, turned around and smiled directly at Aiden. “Better than being a th-th-th-thief,” he said. Aiden's face went purple. He bent down, grabbed a rock and whizzed it straight at Gerry's head. Before Gerry could get over the shock of having his lip slit open, Pat stepped in and hauled Aiden away.
“What were we talking about?” Sadie says now, rubbing her chin. “Right, Father James. Yes, indeed, fine man he is. He'll be doing a baptism soon too. That Cathy Green went and had the baby.”
Cathy Green is not his mother's favourite person. To start with, she's Annie's best friend; on top of that, she's Violet Green's daughter. But Gerry has always liked Cathy. For a while, she was the only one who knew about him and Annie. Annie. He's finally seen her again. If only it hadn't taken Mercedes' death to make it happen.
“Cathy's life sure has changed,” he says. “A year ago she was still going out with Cyril. Now she's a mother and married to someone else.”
“Poor son of a bitch, he is,” says Sadie. “Didn't take that Cathy long to get knocked up. Probably afraid he'd get away too. Cyril's the lucky one there, I tell you.”
“Come on, Ma, don't. Anyway, everything go okay?”
“Baby's still in hospital.” She wrestles with the lid on the beets.
“What happened? Did you talk to Mrs. Green?”
“You knows that Violet. Thinks her daughter's the first ever gave birthâ”
“Ma!” He takes the jar from her and opens it. “What's wrong with the baby?”
“Ah, nothing. Low blood, bad blood, something like that. Out soon, I'm sure.”
“I hope it's okay. That'd be awful if anything happened.”
“Yes, awful. Unless it's soft in the head. Or retarded.”
“I mean, how do you ever get over it when something happens to your baby?”
“Go on, they're usually fine, sure. Unless you're a Hann.” She proceeds to cut thick slices from a fresh loaf of bread.
“Dead babies all over the place. Hanns thinks only Griffins deserves dead babies, or retarded ones.”
Gerry notices that she has managed, as she so often does, to twist the conversation around to the Hanns. And he, as he so often does, ignores it. “Mrs. Green must be some worried about them.”
Sadie grunts. “I was there the other day and that Violet was on the phone for ages, talking to the nurse and the doctor and heaven only knows who, probably the priest and the nuns, God himself even. Swear no one else ever had a problem. Yapping away while I scrubbed her dirt. Blathering on about that Cathy. Thought she'd never shut up. I said nothing, kept my head down the toilet and did my job. Let her rattle on. Don't know for hard times, that one don't.”
“Don't be like that, Ma.” His mother can really act the bitch when she's in the mood, or when she has a few drinks in. And even though he knows she's a good person deep down, she can be hard to take when he's so tired.
“Like what?” Sadie throws out her hands in righteous innocence, still holding the oversized bread knife. “I'm only just saying what's the truth. That crowd don't think of nobody but theirself.”
They're only words, no sticks, no stones, just words, he tells himself. Close your mind and eat something and go to bed out of it just like always. But he can't. Does it have to do with seeing Annie again, he wonders, with being reminded of his mother's role in what happened? Is that why he is suddenly so attuned to, and irritated, by her, despite the fact that he has long forgiven her that role?
“They're good people, Ma. You might not like them, but that's no reason to go around slagging them all the time.”
“Hah, good people my arse.”
“Please, would you justâ”
Her free hand springs up. “Don't be telling me, mister. I knows them way better than you. Been putting up with the likes of them all my frigging life. I got the goods on that lot. Hanns are no better than us.”
“Hanns? I thought we were talking about Cathy Green.”
“Greens, Hanns, no difference to me. Thinks they're so good, looking down their noses at us. Butter wouldn't melt. Still I don't hold no grudge, no sir, not me. Live and let live is my motto. Do the right thing by your neighbour, the right thing be done back to you. How hard is that? Lucinda, spiteful bitch. Leaving her own family off the invite list. So we're not kissing cousins. No reason to snub her snotty nose at me. No, sir. Keeps on doing it, though, again and again. Bloody Hanns.”
Gerry wishes he'd kept his mouth shut. “You're right, Ma. Of course you know them all better than me. You've been around here forever, haven't you, girl?” He yawns again. “Lord, I don't think I'm going to last much longer tonight.”
“Right? âCourse I'm right,” she says, still sawing the loaf of bread which has begun to crumple under the pressure. “Goes around comes around. We all gets what's coming to us sooner or later. And the Hanns got what was coming to them that time, by the Lord. The whole thing was all for naught, the rushed wedding, getting everybody all worked up, hurt feelings everywhere. That Beth had the wedding so she could have the baby, and Lucinda didn't see fit to add one more person to the guest list. Just one. Me. Didn't have to have the whole kit and caboodle. But no. Had that whole frigging Green clan, youngsters and all. Boiled me. And look what happened - wedding was all for nothing. Hah! Maybe if they weren't so mean, maybe God would have spared that baby. Then again, do the world want more of that lot gracing the earth? Plenty Hanns already. Turning their fat arses away from us. I done the right thing, though. First thing next day I bought a Mass for that dead baby. Lot of good it did him. All the masses in the world wouldn't get him into heaven. Limbo-Larry forever. One less I'll see when I gets there.”
His mother's cheeks are rosy under her grey waves. She could easily pass for a sweet little old lady if she didn't open her mouth. It doesn't help that she's been into the booze. It always revs her up to life's injustices, real and imagined.
Out of nowhere, the image strikes. Close up this time. Again, more vivid than is possible. Emerald eyes. Lips like raspberries on fresh snow. Firm chin, the smooth white skin of her neck, her body so close, so out of reach. And those eyes, those eyesâ¦
His mother has a point. Life is full of injustice.
“I don't remember her ever going into a hospital before that day. Even when you girls were born, she'd wait till I got home to come see you.” Lucinda's sigh is extra long. “We were all heartbroken, especially Beth, but Mercedes blamed herself. And we could never talk sense to her.”
“Guilt is a powerful thing,” says Annie. “It doesn't always make sense.” She feels a pang of remorse run through her, for herself, for her mother and Mercedes, for Beth and her baby, the helpless infant in perpetual limbo. That particular concept no longer worries Annie, however. She has long ceased believing in limbo and purgatory. Hell is another matter.
“Hard to believe she's gone.” Joe stands abruptly. “I think I'll go sit with her for a bit. Keep Dermot and the boys company.”
Joe has hardly left when Pat and Aiden bounce in, making as much noise as two strapping young men can make after spending an evening pent up with a corpse.
“Thought you were keeping the vigil,” Annie says, relieved to see them.
“Uncle Joe wanted to say his goodbyes,” says Pat, scratching his unruly head.
Aiden sizes him up. “My brother, the Viking.”
“Just call me Leif.” Pat looks him up and down. “And by the way, you're no fucking oil painting yourself.” He says it low and out of the side of his mouth so Lucinda, who is moving the cups from the drying rack into the cupboard, won't hear.
Aiden pats his neatly combed hair. “Prettier than you. Always have been.”
“And me,” Annie adds dryly. “Remember when old man Canning caught us raiding his rhubarb patch? He called me and Pat delinquents, while you managed to talk your way into getting paid to harvest the whole frigging crop.”
“I never met a person could lie like you.” There is admiration in Pat's voice.
“It's a gift from God,” says Aiden.
Lucinda shuts the cupboard door hard. “You can leave God out of it.”
“What do you say, Aiden?” Pat flops down into a chair. “Time to raise a toast to Great-Auntie Merce.”
Lucinda frowns at him. “Like you two got so many fond memories of her.”
“I'm fond of anybody gets me out of jail,” says Aiden. “Almost drove me nuts after, mind you, nagging day in and day out till I went back to school.” His tone is a mix of pride and exasperation. “I still wonder why she showed at that parole hearing.”
“I told you, she wanted to get you off my boat and away from me,” says Pat.
“Nah. Probably just some latent maternal instinct,” says Annie.
Aiden laughs. “Doubtful. But it was good of her to stand up for me.”
“I suppose it was,” Annie concedes. “Even if she never let you forget it.”
Pat's foot is jigging up and down, his body almost vibrating with pent up energy. “Made you her grateful little slave, she did. And you fell for it.”
Aiden's mouth tenses. “Kiss my arse, Pat.”
Pat jumps to his feet, pushing his chair back so hard it tips over. “Well, you know what I figured out? That run-in with the cops? That was all Mercedes' fault.”
“Shut the hell up,” says Aiden.
“How could that poor woman be responsible for such a fiasco?” Lucinda asks.
“âPoor woman', my foot.” Pat picks up the chair and slams it back into an upright position. “Mercedes Hann called the cops on her very own family.”
That shut everyone up.
Annie had lived in Calgary for three years before she returned home for a Christmas visit. She'd been back at other times, of course, but she made a point of avoiding the big occasions. That year, however, Lucinda happened to mention that Sadie was going to Toronto to spend the holidays with Gerry. The coast was clear.
Or so she thought until she bumped into Sadie outside the post office.
“Mrs. Griffin?” Annie looked nervously around. “What are you doing here?”
Sadie frowned. “I lives here, don't I?”
“But you're supposed to be in Toronto.”
“Oh, poor Gerard, he ended up in the hospital, he did.”
“Hospital?” Annie noticed that her voice was shrill.
“Yes, the hospital.” Sadie looked slyly up at her, as if waiting for a response.
One look at Sadie's smug old face and Annie knew there couldn't be much wrong with Gerry, otherwise Sadie would not be standing there baiting her. “Too bad you missed your trip,” she said in her most offhand manner and started to walk away.
“His appendix it was.” Sadie's voice carried clearly across the short distance. “Will I tell him you were asking after him?”
The bitch. The rotten miserable old bitch. Annie kept walking.
Determined to put Sadie and Gerry out of her mind, she threw herself into all the holiday traditions, carolling in the evening and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, early morning presents and turkey dinner on Christmas day, followed by a never ending game of Auction that night. The last tradition was her father's annual Boxing Day party.
People started to trickle in midway through the afternoon. Her Uncle Frank and Aunt Kitty arrived with Pat, who was already in such high spirits that he almost spilled the container of cod tongues he'd brought to fry up for the crowd later on. Aiden was delayed, Pat said, busy fending off some girl from the night before. Mercedes appeared for her obligatory visit early in the evening. Heavy-drinking revelry, off-colour sing-alongs and long-winded recitals were not her cup of tea.
By six o'clock, the place was packed, most of them jammed into the living room where Melva Murphy was singing “Butcher Boy.” Not being a fan of the maudlin love song, Annie slipped away to the kitchen for another drink.
Lucinda and Pat were at the stove, discussing how to bump up the pot of turkey soup so they'd have enough to feed the crowd, which was bigger than usual this year. The air was pungent with aromas of roast turkey and Newfoundland savory.
“I'll fry up some onion and sausage. Then we can add some macaroni and a couple of cans of tomatoes,” said Pat, taking a long sharp knife and a can opener from the drawer.
Dermot was at the counter, frowning at all the empty bottles.
“Relax, Derm.” Lucinda's voice was deadpan. “There's lots of homemade wine.”
“God no, Mom,” said Annie. “We can't risk people drinking that stuff.”
Dermot shuddered. “Yes, that was a right awful batch, wasn't it? Come on, Luce, we has one party a year. Least we can do is put it on right, especially with Annie home.”
Lucinda shrugged. “Sure it doesn't matter. It's too late to buy more.”
Pat looked up from the can of tomatoes he was opening. “Why don't I run home and get some of Dad's New Year's stash? You can put it back later.”
Dermot brightened. “Grand idea, Pat. But you can't be getting behind the wheel.”
Pat claimed total sobriety, but Dermot would hear nothing of it.
“Fine, Aiden can drive me. He finally got his license and he just got here so he don't have a sign on him. I'll finish this and then we'll go.” Pat slashed the knife back and forth through the tomatoes in the can then dumped them into the soup. He turned, knife in hand, tomato juice dripping to the floor, just as Mercedes walked into the kitchen.
Mercedes stopped, her eyes on the knife. Her normally pale face went white.
“You okay, Aunt Merce?” Pat reached out to her but then noticed the mess he was making and grabbed a tea towel. After wiping the floor he stood back up, dirty knife in one hand, soiled cloth in the other. He dropped them both into the sink.
Mercedes looked startled for a second, then her gaze shifted to Pat's face and her mouth assumed its usual scowl of displeasure where he was concerned. “A fine mess,” she muttered, although her voice lacked its usual conviction.
For a moment, Pat looked hurt. Then he brushed past her to go find Aiden.
Mercedes buttoned her coat up to her neck and surveyed the counter. “Looks like an early night. Just as well. There's way too much drinking on God's birthday anyway.”
Bold with drink and beyond caring, Annie grabbed a jug of water and raised it high. “Jesus have mercy on us and turn this here water into wine. In the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.”
Lucinda took the jug from her hand. “Don't be sacrilegious, Annie.”
“I see they're teaching you some fine habits out in Alberta,” Mercedes scolded. “What else could you expect in a province led by the likes of that heathen Klein?”
Annie's urge to spar died a quick death. She and Mercedes rarely spoke anymore and she had no desire to change that. She went to the stove to stir the soup.
“Now, Mercedes,” said Dermot. “Jesus don't mind a little celebration.”
“If you run out of liquor, the celebrating will be over whether you like it or not.”
“No worry there. We got our Pat on the case.” He took Lucinda's arm. “Come on down to the basement and we'll see if there's something hid away.”
“Never known that boy to run out of drink, Irish Paddy that he is,” Mercedes called after them as they went to the stairs.
At the front door she came face to face with Pat, truck keys in hand. “You've no sense, have you?” she bit into him. “Put those keys away, you loaded sot!”
The combination of booze and resentment made for a long-avoided confrontation.
“Jesus, look who it is, Mother Mary Fucking Mercedes! Leave me alone and mind your own goddamn business. You'd drive Christ himself to the bottle, you would.”
Mercedes glared at him. “Driving in your condition! You better watch out, you good-for-nothing fool.” She charged from the house, almost bumping into Sadie Griffin who was listening intently on the other side of the door.
Sadie moved to get past Pat, who stepped sideways to stand in her way.
He folded his arms across his chest. “What the hell do you want?”
Sadie pushed an envelope at him. “I found this card to Lucinda among my mail.”
“Been no mail for days. What were you doing, you old biddy, steaming it open?”
“How dare you?” Sadie stammered. “If my Gerard was here, he'dâ”
“If he was here, I'd knock the face off him.” He jabbed the keys in front of her face. “Now get home out of it.”
Sadie's mouth opened and closed several times, then she bolted down the lane.
Pat went inside and slammed the door. The room had become uncommonly quiet.
“What the hell are you gawking at?” he shouted at the crowd, his good spirits gone the way of Mercedes and Sadie. “Aiden, come on, let's go.”
“Hang on, I'm starving. I barely got a chance to eat since yesterday.”
Pat stood impatiently while Aiden made himself a sandwich and a cup of tea. Twenty minutes later, finally finished, he had to go to the bathroom. Pat waited, his body lodged against the door until Aiden sauntered down the stairs tucking his shirt into his jeans. “Hold on to your drawers, Pat. Can't be going off half-cocked now, can we?”
“Christ's sake,” Pat muttered, pushing him out the door and towards the truck.
Years before, Farley Hann's house had been the only one on that road, which, back then, was really just a dirt lane up the hill. There would have been little likelihood of meeting another car. As the population increased and more houses were built, Hann's Hill, as it was called, opened up to join the rest of the town. The Hanns gradually acquired a street full of neighbours, including Lucinda and Dermot. On this Boxing Day night, most of these neighbours were either tucked into their own homes or at the Bryne's party. There should still have been little chance of running into anyone.
As Aiden approached the bottom of the hill, a police car moved towards them. Inexperienced with winter driving, Aiden hit the brakes. The truck skidded sideways on the icy road and rammed into the side of the cruiser.
“Mother of Jesus,” groaned Pat in the silent aftermath. “You okay?”
Aiden nodded. He was reaching for the handle when, out of nowhere, the doors flew open and they were each hauled out by a uniformed arm.
The policeman holding Aiden was unfamiliar to both of them. He sniffed the air. “So this is Patrick Hann. Driving under the influence, are you?”
The other officer, Bob Turner, shook his head. “You got the wrong one, Maloney. That one's Aiden, the younger brother.”
“That doesn't make sense. He's not supposed to be driving.”
Maloney shoved Aiden aside and grabbed Pat, twisting his arm behind his back. Pat cried out in pain. Aiden jumped in and dragged Maloney to the ground. Turner rushed to get him off, but not before Aiden managed to pound his ringed fist into Maloney's face, leaving a bloody scratch across his cheek.
Maloney jumped up. “Stupid fucking Newf. Get in the goddamn car.”
Stunned, neither Pat nor Aiden moved right away.
“Now!” Maloney screamed, his hand on his holster.
Still shocked but now scared witless as well, they scurried into the back seat.
The end result was that Aiden ended up with a stint in jail. When he came up for parole, things did not appear promising. Punching a cop was a serious matter. Then Mercedes showed up at the hearing. As a well-respected teacher and community leader, her promise to personally oversee Aiden's rehabilitation carried considerable weight.
Anxious to put prison behind him, Aiden, for once, kept his mouth shut.
Snow drifted down in fat airy flakes to settle softly on thefrozen white ground. It would have made for a picture-perfectChristmas Eve but that was already three days past. The pot ofturkey soup was finally empty. Gifts had been put away; decorationswould soon follow. The time had come to prepare forthe New Year, to make resolutions. Sadie Griffin, as always, resolvedto keep her family safe, her secrets safer. Sadie had beenmaking the same resolution since her oldest son was born.
Them stupid little bastards. Hah!
Sadie snuggled her ear to the phone. She'd been waiting for the call and didn't want to miss a word. “Uh-huhâ¦yesâ¦go on, they didn'tâ¦ain't that somethingâ¦well, not like they didn't have it coming to themâ¦uh-huhâ¦yes, thanks Bessie, be talking to you.” She popped the phone back on the hook and went to stand to the side of the living room window, slightly behind the curtain. “You hear about them Hann boys?”
Debra looked up from where she sat on the sofa, the sewing kit open on her lap. “What Hann boys?” she asked, threading a needle.
“Right. Like you don't know.”
“Lots of Hanns.” Debra pulled the needle through a small white shirt.
“Yeah, sure there are. Too many. Anyway, they got their-selves arrested.”
Debra's fingers stopped over a tray of buttons. “What for?”
“Driving into a cop and then beating on him.” Sadie pulled the curtain a bit more to the left to better see down the road.
“Really, now?” Debra smiled and picked a button. “The both of them?”
“Uh-huh. Bessie says it was more Aiden that did it, though.”
“They in jail?”
“They were till their father bailed them out.”
Arsehole Frank Hann. Wonder where he got the money for that.
Debra examined the button, put it back and picked a bigger one.
Sadie smiled at four-year-old Mark who was kneeling on the floor with a pile of cars in front of him - police, ambulance, fire trucks - all lined up perfectly straight and from biggest to smallest.
Smart boy, our Mark, smarter than poor Debra. Reminds me of Gerard, except when he tries to talk, of course.
“Vwoom, vwoom.” Mark's short, stocky body bounced from knee to foot to knee, over and over as he raced a small blue truck across the room.
“Careful there, Mark, don't bang into the coffee table,” Debra cautioned.
Sadie folded her arms. “Or that cop car there. No father here to bail you out.”
Debra had just inserted the needle into the button and was about to attach it to the shirt. “Give it a frigging rest, would you, Ma.”
“Hard to rest with an extra mouth to feed,” Sadie said, keeping an eye out the window.
“I told you, I'll get a goddamn job.”
“You wouldn't need to still be looking if it weren't for that Beth Ennis.”
Debra wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Despises her, I do.”
“Her fault you never got that job. Get on at the post office, you got it made, sure.”
“This is the second time that bitch is after screwing me out of a job.”
“When it comes to a Griffin or a Hann, the Hann wins every time.”
Every frigging time. Fed up, I am.
Debra jabbed the needle through the buttonhole. “Every Jesus time.”
Sadie's mouth tightened as a black cat made its way across the yard, leaving little paw holes deep in the pure white ground cover. Sadie didn't like cats.
“It's not fair.” Debra's voice was whiny, shrill. “She's no better than me. Just because she got that stupid diploma, thinks she's the smartest thing on two legs.”
“Just like her mother. Lucinda always thought she was better than anyone else.”
“Don't need no diploma to sort mail. Say your ABC's, you can do that.”
“Luck of the Irish. Still, no shamrocks up her arse when she got knocked up.”
Youngster died, mind you. Not so lucky there.
“Goddamn Byrnes,” Debra grunted. “Sick of them all.”
“Then again, she managed to get a husband out of it,” Sadie added.
“Christsakes.” Debra scratched inside her bra. “Shut up, will you.”
“Vwoom, vwoom,” said Mark, driving the truck up his mother's leg.
“Come here, you, and give me a hug.” Debra swept him up in her arms, tickling his belly and sending him into fits of giggles and shrieks.
“What a racket. Keep it down, you two.” Despite her tone, Sadie was smiling.
Arrested. Hah! Talk about a Christmas present.
Gerry sips his tea at the kitchen window, staring out into the black arms of night. A large slanted rock across the street looks over the cliff onto the beach below. As a boy he would lie on that rock, ignoring the smells drifting over from the nearby fish plant, and dream of all the exotic places he'd read about in Mercedes' books. When he was older, he dreamt about Annie Byrne.
Every time he came home, he hoped he'd run into her. The only reason he'd returned for Cathy's wedding was because he figured Annie would have to show up to see her best friend get married. “Annie's not big on weddings, Gerry,” Cathy had told him. “I figured you'd know that.”
“Gerard?” Sadie's voice is loud.
He turns guiltily to his mother. “Yeahâ¦sorry, Ma. What is it?”
She holds the butcher knife suspended above the cold, wrinkled turkey. “I said you want the white or the dark?”
“Either one's fine.”
“Lots here for a plate of sandwiches to bring along tomorrow. Family funeral, after all. Hah! Some family. Should bring something, seeing how much time you spent there with the old batâ¦” She keeps muttering to herself as she slices the turkey.
His mother generally hides her resentment of his and Mercedes' friendship, unless she's drinking, at which point all Hanns are fair game. Under the influence of one or two, she makes a few digs or snide remarks. More than that and she'll start to rant, calling Lucinda names like “Yank tart” or “man-robber,” Mercedes “mercy moneybags” or “dried-up old spinster.” The one time Gerry tried to defend Mercedes, who for her part never said a bad word to him about his family, Sadie went into such a rage she scared him. She remembered none of it the next day. He's grateful she only drinks at home.
“â¦they'll not be saying I don't do things proper, goddamn hypocrites.”
“Sandwiches are a good idea, Ma. That's really thoughtful of you.”
“Huh? Oh, right, sandwiches,” she says, then after a moment, adds innocently, “I suppose they'll all be home for it, eh?”
“White meat sounds good,” he says, ignoring the question. “So anyway, what's new with you? How are those bunions?”
“Bunions are bunions.” She looks at him. “You're looking some washed out, though. Travelling is hard on the body, especially for a funeral. Wonder who'll be there from away,” she says in her most casual voice.
Gerry smiles to himself. “Quite a few, I suspect. People had a lot of respect for Mercedes Hann.”
“I'm really going to miss her.” He'd last seen her when he was back for Cathy's wedding. Just as he'd done in high school, he read to her from one of her newly acquired books. Unlike the old days, however, when she would pretend her eyes hurt so he could read and at the same time earn money for supposedly helping her, this time she truly was not up to the task. Still, she refused to go to a doctor.
“Um-hmm.” Sadie's head is lowered over the bird. She carves for a while then turns it around so the breast cavity faces away from her.
“I'm not sure what I would have done if she hadn't been so generous,” he adds. Despite himself, he is beginning to feel a slightly sadistic enjoyment in the conversation. He really should go to bed.
Sadie keeps slicing, slowly, methodically. Only a short quick sigh slips out.
“Yes, she was good to a lot of people,” he continues, “even helped that frigging Aiden get out of jail that time. Now that's what I call generous.”
“Cops should have locked them up and chucked the keys. Good call, that was.”
“What do you mean? What call?”
Sadie looks startled. “Nothing. Not a thing.” She takes a decisive swipe at the pope's nose and plops it and the knife on the counter. “There. That's that.”
Gerry notices that his mother's back is slightly hunched. It occurs to him that she had this same roundness to her shoulders the last time he was home, but he'd forgotten it until this minute. He drains his cup. “How about a fresh pot of tea?”
“Sure, go on. Make you a plate to go with it.”
He plugs in the kettle, then hugs Sadie around the shoulders. She glances up at him. Her face looks tired; the colour in her cheeks does not match the pallor around her eyes. Whether he wants to see it or not, his mother is getting old.
“Some scoff here. You must have been cooking for days.” He kisses her forehead and hugs her again. “Thanks, Ma. It's good to be home.”
Pat's hands are fists. His back is rigid. “That cop thought I was behind the wheel. He as much as said so. Now why was that? Huh? Why?”
“Let it go, Pat. Besides, Aiden's better off for it.” Lucinda rises unsteadily, one hand on the St. Anne medal around her neck. “I'll go keep Derm and Joe company.”
Pat waits until Lucinda is out of earshot. “Mercedes left that party, walked home and phoned the cops. I'd swear to it on a stack of bibles.”
“That's a bit hard to swallow, Pat,” says Annie. “Even I don't think Mercedes would turn in her own nephew.”
Aiden gets up from the table. “Well, we'll never know now.” His tone is harsh, angry. “And I, for one, don't give a rat's arse anymore. So drop it.”
“What do you want to defend her for?” asks Pat.
“Defend her?” Aiden shouts. “You are such an idiot, Pat!” Turning from his brother, he catches Annie's eye and mutters “fucking fool” under his breath.
Pat obviously hasn't heard the insult. “She did it on purpose and you knows it, too. You just never had the guts to say anything to her.”
“Come off it, you two,” warns Annie with a glance towards the doorway. “Don't be getting into anything tonight. Mom's got enough on her mind.”
Aiden ignores her. “What would you know about guts, Pat?”
“More than you, that's for sure.”
Aiden faces him eye to eye. “What the hell does that mean?”
Pat stares him down. “It means I'd face up to responsibility, that's what.”
“You don't know the first thingâ”
“I knows you were messing around with that poor stupid girl.”
Annie looks from one to the other, surprised that a conversation about Mercedes has veered off in this direction. Then again, Mercedes was all about accountability.
Aiden groans. “Don't tell me you're on about that Griffin slut again. Christ!”
“You made your bed.”
“Hard not to when she throws herself at you.”
“You could have said no.”
“Like you would, I suppose?”
Pat crosses his arms. “Like I did.”
“It's the truth.”
Aiden snickers. “Just proves the bitch would go to bed with anyone.”
Annie can't sit silent any longer. “For Christ's sake, Aiden, there's a youngster involved here.”
Aiden whirls on her. “Mind your own goddamn business, Annie.”
“No, I won't. Pat's right. You should have done the right thing.”
“Listen to you,” he mocks, “picking up for a Griffin.”
“Who happens to be raising a kid without a father.”
“Fucking Griffins are all sluts and homos and liars. Just ask Dad â he'll tell you.” Frank Hann had nursed a particular disliking for Sadie ever since she'd accused him of stealing from the church. “Like mother like daughter, I swear to God.”
“Not like you at all, eh?” Pat jumps back in. “Hand always on the zipper, then not man enough to own up to it when it comes back at youâ”
“Shut the fuck up, the two of you. I'm sick of your sanctimonious bullshit. As for you, Pat, I'm glad Aunt Merce got me off your stinking boat. And even if she did what you said,” he continues, his voice tight with warning, “you knows it wasn't me she was after. So in the end, whose fault was it?”
Annie hears a noise from down the hall. “Okay, that's enough. The last thing Mom needs is you two going at it.”
Aiden walks to the sink and pours a glass of water. He looks at if for a moment then turns and raises the glass high. “To Mercedes. May she finally rest in peace.” Only his mouth smiles.
Pat, looking relieved, gives in easily. “Good old Aunt Merce. Dead as a doornail and still pissing off the world.”
Lucinda comes in, followed by Joe and Dermot.
“Never known a woman harder to toast than Mercedes,” says Dermot. “She's like just-baked bread, she is - keeps getting stuck in the toaster until it finally catches fire.”
Lucinda rolls her eyes but she's smiling. “What are you like, Derm? A couple of belts of whiskey and out comes the philosophiser.” Her hand clasps his where it rests on her shoulder. “Speaking of bread, I got to get some from the freezer for tomorrow's sandwiches. Wouldn't want you crowd having nothing to soak up the suds.”
She bustles off, yelling back for someone to go keep an eye on the coffin.
“I'll be right in, Mercedes,” Dermot calls out as he reaches under the sink. “Stay where you're to till I comes where you're at.” His hand reappears holding a paper bag. He winks at them all as he heads back to the living room.
Pat and Aiden start to follow when Lucinda calls out from the basement. “Will one of you boys come down and give me a hand? This door is jammed again.”
They stop in mid-stride and glance back at Annie. They shrug guiltily, as if they've been caught in the act of doing, or planning to do, something forbidden. Annie is reminded of when they were kids, they with no sisters and her in a family full of girls. A furtive flash here, a quick glance there, always imagining Lucinda or Aunt Kitty looming over their shoulders. Or, God forbid, Mercedes. But how else were they to know what the other half looked like? Her father locked a newspaper over the fly in his pyjamas if he was in the same room with his daughters, and Pat and Aiden only knew their mother's underwear existed because she hung it in the furnace room to dry; Kitty Hann would never hang her brassiere outside on the clothesline. When it came to s-e-x, there wasn't a book to be found until high school, and then it was a beet-faced Sister Angela reading it out to them, tight-lipped, cheeks bursting.
Aiden heads down to help Lucinda. Several minutes later, he returns and places a mickey of rum on the table. Joe's eyes light up.
“You'd find booze in a nursery,” says Annie. “Better not let Mom see that.”
Pat is nodding. “Remember out in Bay D'Esprits. We'd be raiding the empty cabins to see what was left behind, and himself here never failed to find a few beers.”
“Except at Aunt Merce's,” says Aiden. “No booze there.”
“And the only cabin around locked tight as a jail,” Annie adds.
Pat raises the bottle. “To Mercedes, the first in a long line of women who failed to take a shine to yours truly.”
“Still no luck with the ladies?” says Annie.
“Same as ever.” Pat has always been awkward with women, too often saying the wrong thing in an attempt to be more like Aiden, who attracts the opposite sex with little effort. But Annie knows that Pat can be a girl's best friend when it really matters.
“I'd propose a toast but I can't think of a thing to say.” Aiden smiles innocently as Lucinda enters the kitchen laden with frozen buns and loaves of bread. Pat hides the mickey under his sweater.
Annie looks doubtful. “That'd be a first, Aiden Hann without a word in.”
Aiden looks straight at her. “Gerry Griffin's home. We'll get him to toast her.”
The words hit like a slap in the face. She should have known he'd get her back.
“Who's speechless now, eh?” Aiden smirks.
“You'd have a few things to say to that bastard, wouldn't you, Annie?” says Pat.
She warns him with her eyes to shut up. “So, Mom,” she says with forced calm, “what'll we do with these buns?”
Lucinda is glaring at Aiden but when she looks at Annie, her expression softens. “I'm not sure. You want to give me a hand?”
Annie nods, grateful for any excuse to get away.
Joe, who had started to doze off at the table, perks up. “I never understood why Merce took such a shine to that boy.”
“I think she felt bad for him,” says Lucinda, “growing up without a father like she ended up doing. He certainly brought out the soft side of her, don't you think, Annie?”
Annie says nothing. She does not want to think about Gerry or Mercedes. She doesn't want to remember the last time the three of them were in the same room together. Nothing was ever the same after that. Nothing's been right since.
Joe glances towards Pat. “She liked him better than some of her own, I'd say.”
“Gerry was good to her, too.” Lucinda rests her hand on Annie's shoulder. “Turned out to be a smart young fellow. I'd say he surprised a lot of people.”
“What do you say, Annie? You surprised how smart he was?” Aiden's eyes have that glint of cruelty Annie has noticed before, though it's rarely been directed at her.
She's suddenly had enough of it all. She's fed up with pretending, with feeling like a victim, with saying the right thing. “Hard to find smarter than him or Mercedes,” she says, her voice choked with bitterness. “They made a fine fucking pair, they did.”
From an early age, it was apparent that Annie was more academically inclined than her sisters or her cousins. By age four, she had taught herself to read. By the time she went to school, she could do basic math. As she grew older, she preferred books, generally on science or nature, for birthday and Christmas presents. While Lucinda and Dermot were pleased that she was so bright, they found her unending questions exhausting. Annie soon learned that Callum and Mercedes' house was a more hospitable environment for her curiosity. And although she found her aunt intimidating, Mercedes always took her seriously, as did her grandfather, both of whom talked about Annie's attendance at university as a foregone conclusion.
Each report card, she and Cathy Green, along with Francis Fowler, would compete for first place. Annie usually came out ahead. Their academic rivalry continued into high school, where the enrolment nearly tripled. While most towns along the shore had their own elementary school, they were each too small to support independent high schools, so students from Royal Cove to Harbourville were bussed to St. Jude. None of the new influx did much to challenge the status quo, however, and Annie, Cathy and Francis continued their three-way contest.
Gerry Griffin was not in the running.
The ultimate prize was a scholarship to Memorial University of Newfoundland, awarded annually to the top student in Grade Twelve. Annie had always assumed, deep within her competitive mind, that it would be hers. When the marks were posted, she was stunned to see that Cathy had won. Not by much, but she'd won.
Even more shocking was the third place winner. Gerry Griffin had beaten Francis Fowler, and he'd come perilously close to overtaking Annie herself.
Gerry wasn't stupid, he wasâ¦well, he was a Griffin. He had never shone scholastically, nor was he expected to. Gerry did, however, consistently do better than the Hann brothers, a fact which Mercedes never tired of pointing out. “If you paid as much attention as Gerry,” Mercedes would scold, “you'd be able to put two and two together.” Being compared unfavourably to a Griffin annoyed Aiden immensely, but he was far too lazy to do anything constructive about it, and instead resorted to calling Gerry names and making snide remarks about the Griffins in general. Unlike his brother, Pat didn't seem nearly so bothered about the negative comparison. Having flunked the first grade, he had fairly low expectations of himself, as did Mercedes.
As for Annie, she had paid little attention to Gerry's academic achievements, which was not to say that he himself had gone undetected. She noticed his eyes, brown and clear, and his hair a few shades lighter than his eyes. She noticed that he didn't smile too often, but when he did, a dimple creased his right cheek. His nose was different too, slightly bony with a rise in the middle, a Roman nose perhaps. And in Grade Nine, when Sister Angela had him stand next to Annie for their class picture, she noticed that his shoulder was finally higher than hers.
Annie and Gerry had rarely played together as children. He was always busy with chores or running errands for Mercedes, and seldom played ball or kick-the-can with Annie and her friends. When he did join in, he seemed to hang near the fringe, not fully participating, as if he felt he didn't belong there. Or maybe he was nervous that his mother might show up and berate him in front of everyone for wasting time when he had work to do. Annie had disliked Sadie more than usual the day she'd done that.
Nor did they hang out as teenagers; Aiden couldn't stand him, and Pat, even though he was older, tended to follow Aiden's lead. As for Annie, she generally tried to ignore him. Occasionally, however, in school or church, or at the store perhaps, Annie caught him looking at her. These random moments always left her with a funny feeling in her stomach, but she'd never stopped to consider if it was funny-good or funny-bad. Gerry would immediately turn away, as would she - except for that one time in Grade Ten Science lab when she found his dark eyes watching her. In a flash of defiance she stared back, expecting him to blush and look away. He didn't. He smiled. Feeling the heat race up her neck, and furious with herself for instigating the whole stupid exercise, she stuck her tongue out at him, then quickly looked away and laughed loudly at something she pretended Cathy had said. When Cathy asked what was so funny, Annie laughed again. Cathy gave her an odd look but no one else noticed, thankfully. After that, she avoided Gerry in and out of school. If he was at Mercedes' house when Annie was there, she barely acknowledged him, at the most condescending to a nod of her head towards his pimpled puberty-stricken face as she waltzed past him. If anyone had thought to ask, she would have vehemently denied that she knew he existed, let alone felt any attraction to him. After all, he wasn't just a Griffin, he was her cousin, even if her family did wish it otherwise. She'd only found out that they had the same grandmother because Aiden had taunted her with it after she'd beat him once too often at Crazy Eights. When she'd asked her parents about it, Lucinda had sighed an exasperated sigh and told Annie not to be digging up ancient history. Annie had let it go. After all, it made no difference to her.
Despite losing the scholarship, Annie was still determined to go to MUN.
“And how are we going to afford that now?” Lucinda wanted to know.
“I'll get a bigger student loan.”
“They only give you so much. It said in the brochure the parents got to help.”
“Mom, I'll manage. It's not your problem.”
“We don't have money like the Greens, you know.” Lucinda carried on sweeping as if she hadn't heard. “Not that Cathy needs it now she got the scholarship.”
“Jesus,” Annie muttered under her breath, then louder, “I'll be fine, Mom.”
“No you won't. I think you best go see your aunt about a loan.”
“Right, I can just hear her. âYou should have spent more time studying and less time dreaming on the beach, '” Annie mimicked. “You know what she's like. Your head's not buried in a book, you're wasting time. She's going to blame it all on me.”
Lucinda stopped sweeping and stared pointedly at Annie.
That afternoon, Annie stomped off down the wet, grey pavement. The sky was dark. The clouds were heavy. Still, she would have preferred the elements to the overbearing heat of Mercedes Hann's kitchen.
Annie hung up her coat and shook her hair from its wet ponytail, careful not to splatter any raindrops on the always-open bible on the desk. Rufus bounded over to sniff and nuzzle her until Mercedes ordered him away, at which point he immediately flopped down on the rug by the stove. The aroma of hot figgy bread, her aunt's specialty, filled the room. Mercedes' hair was loosely tied and she wore a plaid apron over her brown pants and beige twin set. She was smiling.
“Look at this, Annie.” Mercedes turned the page of a slightly tattered book on the flora of the east coast. “Such a rare find. Over a hundred years old.”
“Wow!” Annie leaned over to look. She knew better than to touch it; her hands were still damp. “Is Granddad here?” she asked hopefully.
“In the back room. I picked up his new computer in St. John's yesterday and he's been at it since he got up this morning.” She poured Annie tea from the big brown pottery teapot. “Here, this will take the chill from your bones.”
“So he finally got a computer, did he?”
“Yes. Now, you received your results yesterday. How did you do?” If Mercedes had something to say, out it came â no dawdling, no feigned indifference.
Annie had no such inclination. “Pretty good,” she answered.
Her aunt sliced into the raisin-studded bread. Steam rose up as its molassesey goodness sweetened the humid air. “Did you beat them?”
“Ahâ¦Iâ¦you know, did pretty good,” she stammered, accepting a plate of hot buttered bread.
Mercedes folded her arms and stared at Annie. “Yes, go on.”
“I had a really bad cold during exams, and Mom's always over at Beth's helping with her new baby, and I was really tired from theâ”
“Ann, did you come first or not?” Mercedes cut in sharply.
“Ann” was a sure sign of displeasure. Annie decided she might as well confess. Playing verbal cat and mouse with her aunt was destined to be a losing battle.
“Cathy beat me by two marks.” Mercedes' scowl deepened. Annie rushed to justify herself. “I wonder if her mother told her the questions. She's a teacher, she probably knew them.”
“Nonsense!” The single word, issued in Mercedes' cold authoritarian voice, made Annie sit up straight. “Violet Green would no more cheat than I would.” Mercedes leaned over and wagged her finger in Annie's face. “If you had one grain of sense in that wasted brain of yours you'd know that.”
“They didn't ask the right questions.” Her voice had fallen to a plaintive whimper. “There was stuff on there the teachers hadn't even covered. It's not fair.”
Mercedes plunked the knife down on the counter. “When you're finished blaming the world, perhaps you can tell me who came in third. I assume it was the Fowler boy?”
Annie seized the opportunity to focus elsewhere. “Francis didn't even make the top three. At least I came in second, and Cathy barely beat me. I'd like to get them marks checked.” Sometimes she didn't know when to shut up.
“Enough, Ann. Who came in third?” Each word was a measure in patience.
Annie looked down at her plate, her appetite gone. She pictured Gerry's face, Mercedes' errand boy. The fact that Annie or Pat or Aiden would have been equally capable and in need of earning money had apparently never occurred to Mercedes. And from what Annie had seen, she paid Gerry handsomely, and for the oddest things. She paid him to read, for God's sake. She even let him borrow her precious books.
It had grown quiet in her aunt's kitchen. Mercedes was waiting.
“Gerry Griffin,” Annie mumbled, flicking at the handle of her mug of tea.
“Gerry came in third?” A smile lit up her aunt's face as she clapped her hands together. “I told that young man he could do it. I said if he studied hard and let me help him, he could beat out those show-offs who think they know everything.”
Annie pushed the tea away. Is that what Mercedes thought of her? A show-off? As she watched her aunt's beaming face, she realized that Mercedes wasn't even aware of the insult. Worse still, she had apparently been helping Gerry all along. Since when did his success become more important than Annie's?
“To think he placed in the top three!” Mercedes continued. “He never made it better than sixth before that. He must have worked so hard, what with all he does to help that mother of his. What a fine lad he's becomeâ¦”
A fine lad? He'd come in third to Annie's second, yet Mercedes called him a fine lad while at the same time implying that Annie was a failure.
Still Mercedes prattled on. “â¦always knew he was better than the rest of themâ¦”
Annie looked out the window at the rain lashing the pane. She wished she was out there, away from her aunt's gushing voice. Would the woman never shut up?
“Anyway,” Annie cut in, hurt beyond caring if she was rude, “Mom and I wondered if you could lend us some money to supplement the student loan I'll get.”
Mercedes focused back on Annie. “That scholarship should have been yours.”
“Well it almost was. And it wasn't my fault. If I'd knownâ”
“Enough excuses. Go home and I'll think about it.” She stood up and started to leave the room. “And don't waste that food, we're not made of money.”
Annie locked her eyes on the two slices of bread and kept them there until Mercedes was gone. Plump raisin eyes glistening in melted butter stared up at her. Forcing herself to take a bite, she realized she was starving and stuffed the rest in her mouth. She was about to leave and take the second piece with her when she heard Mercedes talking to Callum.
“â¦her own faultâ¦such a disappointmentâ¦”
Annie stopped chewing to better hear what they were saying.
“â¦first year I taught him, I could see the potential, ragged clothes and all.”
There was an indistinguishable mumble, presumably from Callum.
“Yes, I suppose I did.” Mercedes' wistful tone made Annie's skin prickle.
There was a shuffle, a chair moving, followed by her grandfather's strong voice. “He's a lucky boy to have you looking out for him, Mercie, that's all I can say. And like I told you a million times, it was never your fault.”
“Nor yours. Doesn't stop you from wondering âwhat if, ' though, does it?”
“Maybe not, but I'm long past feeling guilty for it.”
“You're right, I know. You can't just erase guilt from your soul, though, can you? But if I can help young Gerry, maybe God will see fit to forgive us all in the end.”
There was a moment of silence. Annie tried not to breathe too loudly.
“I must call and congratulate him. I just hope that wicked witch of a mother of his doesn't answer the phone,” Mercedes said.
Under cover of her grandfather's laughter, Annie crept out of the house, carefully closing the squeaky screen door. She deliberately chose not to dwell on what she'd heard. She'd had it with Gerry and Mercedes and had no intention of wasting another minute on either of them. Instead, she thought with regret of the figgy bread she'd forgotten on the table and which Rufus was probably eating that very minute.
Three days later her aunt called her to come over to discuss the loan. Mercedes poured tea, from a pitcher with ice this time. There was no warm bread.
“I've given this a lot of thought, Ann. I don't think you deserve that loan.”
Annie could hardly believe it. Mercedes, who had always encouraged her desire to go to university, who had insisted for years that Annie was smart enough to do it, now refused to help her. Why couldn't she support her when she really needed it?
“â¦rewarding undesirable behaviour,” Mercedes was saying. “I've told you that you spend too much time combing the beach, dreaming when you should be studying. You knew you needed that scholarship, and look what you've done. You let everyone down, your grandfather, your mother, most of all yourself. I hope this teaches you the value of hard work. Look at Gerry. If you had half the driveâ¦”
As Mercedes talked on, the hurt turned to anger. What was it with her and Gerry Griffin? Annie thought back to the snippets of conversation she'd overheard on her last visit. What made him a hero and Annie such a disappointment?
She stood up abruptly. “Never mind about the loan. I'll figure it out for myself.” Without waiting for a response from Mercedes, she stormed out of the house.
More determined than ever, she put up flyers at Burke's and the post office offering all manner of services, from lawn to child care, but all she got were a few babysitting jobs. There was little extra work in St. Jude, especially for a seventeen-year-old girl.
Just as she was beginning to despair, Callum stopped by the house complaining that he couldn't figure out his new computer. When Annie volunteered to help, he offered to hire her to set up his documents and teach him how to use it. She told him she would do it for nothing. When he insisted, she let herself be talked into being paid, knowing that her student loan would not be enough to see her through.
With her money problems temporarily sorted, Annie let herself begin to dream about the fall. The future was hers and she intended to grab onto it and fly, leaving Mercedes Hann and Gerry Griffin in the dust of the Trans-Canada Highway.
St. Mary's High was a school divided. The boys, governedby the Brothers, were on one side; the girls, ruled by the Sisters,were on the other. The gymnasium, which also served as thelunchroom, was in the middle. Each day during lunch, theNuns and the Brothers walked up and down between the tables,making sure there was sufficient distance between individualboys and girls. Each day after lunch Sadie Griffincleaned up after them all. She didn't like this particular cleaningjob. She didn't like the students, and she wasn't fond of theBrothers or the Nuns. She preferred priests. Sadie wouldclean up after a priest any day.
That hand goes any lower down her arse it'll be coming out the front.
Sadie walked in procession behind Cyril Maher and Cathy Green as they followed the priest out of the gym at the end of the school Mass. Her hands were joined together, her head slightly lowered. Her pious demeanour belied the indignation in her eyes as they focused on the hand caressing the backside in front of her.
I seen them carrying on, during Mass no less. Like he wanted to slide himself under her skirt right then and there. At lunch too, him with his paws everywhere under the table. Disgusting.
Outside the gym doors, Sadie raised her face to the bright sky. Her arthritis had been worse than normal of late and she was relieved to see the approach of spring. Sidling up next to the visiting priest where he waited to greet students and teachers on the school steps, she placed her hand on his arm.
“My word, Father, that glare would blind you but I thank the Lord anyway.”
Nice bit of muscle there. Good looking too.
Father Ryan nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Griffin, it's certainly bright.”
“You must be starving after that wonderful sermon. I got lunch done up for you at the Priest's House. Cold salmon, potato salad, bit of cheese and bread to go with it.”
“Thank you.” He removed his arm from under her hand to adjust his robe.
“Sure it's the least I can do after you come all this way.”
Especially seeing as they pays me to do it. Still, not like the old days when I got regular work and a steady cheque. Grand job that was. Grand benefits too. Hah!
“That's very kind of you, Mrs. Griffin.”
“Might be the church sees fit to save you all that travel some time soon, what?”
Father Ryan smiled and nodded and turned to a group of students.
Sadie carried on down the steps until a sharp familiar voice called her name. She turned. Several steps above her stood Mercedes Hann who, since her retirement from teaching, ran the school library.
“Good day, Mercedes. And how are you?”
Dried up old prune.
“Fine. And you?” Mercedes' tone held an air of forced politeness.
“Well now, I was just thinking how it's nice to see the sun again, get a bit of lube back in the old bones. Such a long winter, sometimes I wonders if I'll ever thaw outâ”
“Might I have a word with you?”
A word? Isn't that what they were having?
Mercedes moved ahead, away from the crowd. “A walk?”
“Yesâ¦yes sure.” Sadie rushed to catch up.
“Has Gerry spoken to you about our conversation?”
Sadie looked sideways at Mercedes. “Gerard? Noâ¦what about?”
Mercedes gave Sadie a wary look. “Perhaps I should waitâ¦”
Spit in her face, I would. That sick of the two of them, all comfy-cozy and secret.
“Something going on, better tell me.” Sadie softened her tone. “I am his mother.”
Mercedes stopped. “I didn't want to betray Gerry's confidence, especially with so much money involved.”
Sadie's head tilted on a distinct angle, like a cat sensing a mouse's presence before it sees the rodent itself.
“Forgive me, Sadie, please,” Mercedes said.
Sadie was perfectly willing to forgive, especially with “so much money involved.” “That's all right, Mercedes dear. You've always been good to our family.”
And a self-righteous pain in the arse.
Mercedes nodded. “I've offered to pay for Gerry's university education.”
Sadie's breath caught. “You what?”
“I should have spoken to you first, I suppose.” Mercedes started walking again. “I don't want to offend you, really I don't. I know you have your pride.”
If there was a hint of insincerity, Sadie ignored it. “What did Gerard say?”
“He said he couldn't let me, that it was too much and that I had my own family.”
Christ have mercy! When did he get so stupid?
“Gerard's a proud boy,” Sadie managed to say.
Mercedes slowed her stride. “Perhaps you could talk to him?”
I'll talk to him all right. And I'll be getting that money, and I don't care about the why of it. Stillâ¦you got to wonderâ¦ what's that one hiding?
“Why you doing it?”
Mercedes looked uneasy. “He's a good boy. We both only want what's best for him. Considering that I ask for no repayment, I believe we can leave it at that, and between us?” Mercedes gave Sadie a look that made it clear they understood each other, at least as much as they ever would.
What's she up to? Why's she that determined to look after my Gerard? She got lots of nieces and nephews to fetch and carry for her. Why pay Gerard all these years? Ah, fuck it. Don't matter why. Gerard'll be taking every red cent he can get.
“Debra and the boys be needing help too.”
“Hmm, yes, I suppose they will.” Mercedes' tone was noncommittal.
“A word down the road, especially from one of their teachersâ¦” Sadie paused.
Mercedes nodded but said nothing.
Ah, what odds. I can't be worrying about that lot, they don't got Gerard's brains.
“I'll talk to him, don't you worry.”
“Thank you, Sadie.”
“You're welcome, Mercedes.”
Mercedes turned and started back towards the gym doors.
Now isn't that just ducky? Mercedes Hann thanking me for taking her money. Darn right I'll take it. Anything for my Gerard.
A crust of congealed milk has collected at the triangular opening of the can of Carnation. Behind it in the fridge is his mother's cocoa-caramel cake, an elaborate treat that takes hours to prepare - further evidence of the time she has invested in welcoming him home. Gerry remembers the chocolates in his suitcase down the hall.
“Back in a minute,” he says. Halfway to the bedroom he stops and turns back. If he doesn't say something his mother will pile his plate so high he'll never reach the bottom. As he approaches the kitchen, he sees her sneak a small bottle from the pocket of her apron. She quickly unscrews the top and tips it into one of two cups of tea on the table. He retreats again to get the chocolates.
Back in the kitchen, he holds out the box.
“Maple chocolates, my favourite! Some thoughtful, you are. And tall and handsome. Them women up there must be all over you.”
Gerry pretends not to have heard. He has no intention of talking to his mother about his love life. “A cold beer sure would go good with that feast.”
“You don't want beer this time of night. Have a cup of tea instead.”
She has never liked to see him drink, even though he rarely does around her. He doesn't drink much at other times either, perhaps in reaction to his mother, who has been preaching abstinence and sneaking booze as long as he can remember. He reaches out to take a cup; at the last second, he doesn't know why, he goes for the one she spiked.
“No,” she says instantly. “I already put sugar in that one. Take that other cup. It's stronger and hotter. The Lord knows you probably needs it.”
“No, no. I like a bit of sugar.” He has his finger around the handle.
“Yes, but I already drank from that cup and I got a cold sore coming. See?” She screws up her lip in his direction. “I can feel it, right below the surface it is. Don't want you catching that.” Her hand is closing around the cup.
“Darn cold sores. Milk?” he asks, although he already knows the answer. It's either milk and sugar or a tip of the bottle, never both.
“Think I'll have it black for a change.” She takes a big noisy slurp.
Gerry winces. “It's still scalding hot, Ma.”
“I got one of them asbestos mouths sure. Now drink up and we'll have a yarn while there's no one else here. How's your company?”
His job, “his company,” as she calls it, is one of her favourite subjects. He started with an investment firm right out of business school, anxious to help his mother and start paying back Mercedes. The salary is more than decent, and as far as he can tell, he's good at his job. He must be â they keep giving him promotions and raises. He likes it well enough, but the truth is, he gets tired when he thinks about doing it for the rest of his life. His field of study, and his job, have been pragmatic decisions.
“They treat me fine. I can't complain.” That's something he never does around his mother. She wouldn't understand that there could be anything to complain about, that he'd rather be in a classroom. On the other hand, he doesn't tell her the good news anymore either. The one time he mentioned a promotion â his first, a small one, nothing to rave about â half the town congratulated him the next time he came home, people coming up to him at church and on the sidewalk, talking about what a good job he had, how the company was lucky to have him, and how proud St. Jude was to have him for a son. For all they knew he'd been made president of the company. He was too embarrassed to say anything. After that, he told only Mercedes about future promotions.
“Well, you deserves it, Gerard. You always did work hard, running around for Mercedes all the time like you did. Don't know why you did it half the time.”
Gerry hides his grin. She knows exactly why he did it. They needed the money. She knows the other reason too. He enjoyed Mercedes' company.
“â¦in school too,” Sadie is saying. “Had to work harder than the rest of that lot just to get noticed, so them snooty teachers would even see you in the room.”
“Now, Ma, the teachers were fair enough.”
“My arse. Goddamn Violet Green and her ilk. Never knew you had a brain, just another stupid Griffin. Lot they knows. We showed them though, especially them Fowlers, always looking down on us. You beat that Francis fair and square.” Her voice goes low and bitter. “Wish you'd have beat that frigging Annie Byrne.”
Gerry is surprised. She rarely mentions Annie. It's as if by not saying the name out loud, Annie isn't real, and what happened, didn't. He wonders how many nips she's had from her apron pocket. Her eyes have a brightness that wasn't there earlier. “Now, Ma, school wasn't that bad.”
“It was too that bad, Gerard.” She takes another swig of tea. “They never thought a son of mine could do it, but you did. Had to sit up and take notice then, them frigging Greens and Fowlers, especially them goddamn Hanns. Sick of the lot of them. They knew half the secrets I knows what goes on in this town, they'd fall down with fright.”
Gerry groans silently. Now she's going on about secrets. He doesn't doubt that she knows more than a few. He just doesn't want to hear them.
Mercedes had secrets, too, secrets that shaped how she lived her life. “A person must make up for the sins of the past by doing good in the present,” she told him once. He'd been surprised; Mercedes rarely spoke of the past except in reference to a history book. Yet Gerry had long sensed that she carried a heavy burden of guilt, even though he could never imagine what she could have done that was so wrong. She was a teacher, a community leader, a staunch Catholic. Why the need for penance? In her living room next to a statue of the Virgin Mary was a small plaque, which read, “Atonement is necessary for the soul to survive.” It occurred to him once to wonder if he somehow figured into that atonement. In the end, it was irrelevant. The friendship that developed between them could not have been based on guilt.
The food on his plate is growing far beyond his capacity. “That's enough, okay?”
Sadie places a large bowl of beans next to his fork. “I kept the beans separate so it don't run into the rest. I knows you don't like that. Dig in before they gets cold.”
His stomach grumbles, but not with hunger. “Thanks, Ma.” He picks up his knife and fork. “It looks delicious.”
She smiles at him over the rim of her cup, then drains it and licks her lips.
He could really use a cold beer.
Lucinda's hand lifts abruptly from Annie's shoulder. Annie misses the warmth, the contact, but she has only herself to blame. How could she have been that crude, that vulgar, in front of her mother, and about Mercedes on this of all days? Lucinda doesn't ask much of her, a little respect, a little decorum.
Annie looks up, expecting to see her mother's hurt face looking back at her, but it isn't.
“What did Gerry ever do to you, Aiden?” Lucinda's tone is exasperated.
“He did enough. Besides, he's a Griffin, what does it matter?”
“That hardly seems fair.”
“Wasn't fair what Sadie did to Dad either.”
“Frank's not still harping on about that, is he? That's years ago.”
“There's some in this town still looks at him funny even though he never took one red cent from that collection plate. Sadie knows it too. Right, Pat?”
“Give over, Aiden.” Pat turns to Annie. “You okay?”
She nods then meets her mother's eyes. “Sorry, Mom.”
Lucinda smiles. “Come and help me make sandwiches.”
Relieved, Annie pushes back from the table.
Pat stands as well. “I can do that egg and olive spread you likes, Aunt Luce,” he offers.
“That'd be lovely, Pat. Best do it in the morning, though. What else, now? I got tuna somewhere. Let's go see what's in the cold room, Annie.”
Happy to get away from Aiden, Annie follows Lucinda down the stairs. As she enters the utility room, the close damp familiarity catches at her â the oversized washer bought second-hand some twenty years before, the mismatched dryer that's used only on the worst of winter days. Two fully stocked freezers are crammed into the corner, and the shelves on the wall overflow with cans and jars and boxes. Something is always cooking on the stove upstairs, and there's usually a cake or bread or pan of cookies just in or out of the oven, all in anticipation of some unexpected but welcome company to eat it all up. The fridge bulges with yesterday's leavings, ready for a hearty lunch or waiting to be preserved in the freezer. Annie's father likes to joke that he's afraid he'll end up there himself if he sits still too long.
Unlike Lucinda, Annie keeps a streamlined supply of food in her tiny Calgary apartment. Tins of soup and salmon, sliced meat and cheese for sandwiches, frozen meals ready for the microwave. And eggs, she always has eggs, a perfectly proportioned food for single people such as herself, because, although there have been other men who have eased the loneliness for a few weeks or a month, Annie has been on her own. It's too much work to prepare a big meal just for one. Her friends are as busy as she is and the leftovers stare at her until she throws them out, which makes her feel guilty. She is her mother's daughter, after all.
She feels a tingle behind her eyelids and blinks repeatedly in an attempt to clear what must be fatigue. Her mother's hand grasps her elbow. Alarmed, Annie quickly wipes her eyes and turns around. “What is it, Mom? You okay?”
“I'm fine. But are you, Annie? That Aiden had to open his big mouth about Gerry and I could see it took the good out of you. Did you want to talk about it?”
There's a part of Annie that longs to open up to her mother but she's afraid she'll fall to pieces if she starts talking now. “Don't you worry. It'll take more than a Griffin to get this Byrne down,” she says with a gusto she doesn't feel.
“Well if you need to talk, I'm here.” Lucinda sounds frustrated, defensive even.
“Sure, but you're right, let bygones be bygones.” Annie's face is mercifully buried as she rummages for supplies. “If Mercedes wanted to give money to the Griffins, who are we to say she shouldn't have?” She lifts a box from the back of a shelf. “Look, a whole case of tuna.”
“For heaven's sake, who cares about the money? Hardly worth all this fuss when you think about all the other stuff.”
“True,” Annie agrees cautiously, holding out the tuna.
“Like I say, Annie, I'm here if you need me. Always have been.” Lucinda snatches the box from Annie's hands. Her back is stiff as she walks away.
As Annie listens to Lucinda's footsteps tromping up the stairs, she knows that somehow she has let her mother down, but she's not sure how. Without warning, the pace of the last two days slams into Annie so hard her knees tremble. She sits down on an overturned crate and reviews their conversation. Something about it troubles her. “â¦all the other stuffâ¦” What did her mother mean by that? What else does she know?
Her eyes race to the doorway half expecting to see Lucinda. There's no one there.
Annie is suddenly overcome with sadness, for the death of her own innocence, for the loss of all the joy she started out with. Avoiding this moment has been a constant struggle for five years, but every ounce of fight has finally failed her.
She drops her head in her arms and, finally, lets herself cry.
Annie Byrne escaped St. Jude for MUN, arms flung wide to capture all that university had to offer. She was barely a hundred miles from home. It could have been a million.
This state of contentment lasted through her first year and into the second. Her marks were great and she'd met lots of new friends. She'd even gotten the job as the Resident Assistant for her floor, which, along with her student loan and occasional typing jobs, put an end to her constant money worries. Then, as Joe would have put it, life did that sneaky thing where it slips under the skin of your neck, slithers down your spine and bites you on the arse.
It was the third Thursday in January. As usual, she was in the library transcribing her lecture notes and copying scientific formulas, attempting to disentangle the important from the trivial. More often than not, she recopied just about everything. Who knew what insignificant detail might make the difference between an A and a B on some future exam?
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a young man approach. His overloaded knapsack pulled at his T-shirt, stretching it across a wide chest and flat stomach. Annie grinned, imagining herself on the cover of one of the romance novels she'd read secretly as an adolescent, a hunky guy standing behind her, all muscles and teeth, the manly sensitive type, her own face slightly baffled yet amused.
As the intriguing stranger drew closer, he said, “Hello, Annie.” Still half in a daydream, it took a second before she realized that her romantic hero was Gerry Griffin. She hadn't seen him in ages, and then only at a distance. His dark eyes seemed impossibly darker. His bony nose didn't look so beakish since he'd filled out, and his acne had cleared up completely. He was downright handsome.
Just as he stopped next to her carrel, two girls brushed past him, knocking his knapsack onto his arm and sending his contraband coffee spitting in all directions.
“Frig!” he muttered, trying to balance the cup.
A splash of hot coffee hit Annie's arm. She jumped up, knocking her chair over and into Gerry's shin. The rest of the coffee, cup and all, flew from his hand. “Watch out!” he warned too late as it splattered across her desk.
“My geology notes! Shit! I just spent two hours rewriting them.”
He gave her an odd look. “What did you say?”
“I said I just finished rewriting my notes and now they're a frigging mess.”
He pressed the bottom of his T-shirt onto her papers. “What do you do that for?”
“It's a good way to study. I don't want to get behind.”
“Not much chance of that.” His eyes creased with the cutest smile.
Feeling her face start to burn, Annie went to find paper towels. When she came back, Gerry was wringing out his coffee-soaked T-shirt into his cup, leaving the lower part of his stomach exposed. It had the kind of toned look she'd imagined on the book cover moments earlier. She immediately looked away.
“Sorry about your notes,” he said, taking the towels from her.
“Oh, they're not in too bad a shape really, considering.”
He started to clean up the mess. “Going out home tomorrow?”
“No, I'm on residence duty this weekend.”
“Oh yeah? Me too, on duty I mean.”
“You're an RA too?”
“Yeah, just started. Good excuse not to go home.”
“You don't miss St. Jude?”
“God, no.” He gathered up the towels, studying the stains like he was reading tea leaves. “You hear about the bash over at Dewey's tonight?”
Dewey's was a popular bar near campus. It was a dive but the beer was cheap.
“Yeah. Me and Cathy were going to go,” she answered nonchalantly, “but then Cyril talked her into skipping class tomorrow and heading out home for the weekend.”
“That's too bad, should be a great night.” He hesitated. “I could ... I mean, if you'd like, we could go together, you know, if you don't have anyone to go with, we could go, the two of us...?” His cheeks had turned a deep pink.
Was this his clumsy way of asking her out, she wondered, or was he just being friendly? Blunt by nature, Annie had never been one to flirt or play mind games, which may have explained why she didn't date very much. Not that she cared.
“Not like a date,” he blurted. “Nothing like that. There's a whole pile of us meeting up there later. I just thought you wouldn't want to go over alone.”
She felt her face redden, and was about to tell him to take his pity invitation and shove it when he added, “But I hope you come. It'd be nice to catch up.”
Since when did she and Gerry Griffin need to catch up, wondered Annie, rearranging her stained notes. Then again, she did want to go to Dewey's and she knew she'd never walk in alone. She shrugged. “Nothing better to do.”
“Great,” he said eagerly. “I'll be over at nine o'clock.”
“Sure, nine o'clock,” she repeated. “I'm in 212 atâ”
“I know. You're right next door to me,” he said, then went red to his roots.
Between the two of them, there was an inordinate amount of heat racing around. If they didn't end this soon, Annie feared one of them would self-combust.
“I've seen you go in and out,” he added.
“Well, see you in a few hours?”
“Yeah,” Annie answered, then was annoyed at the quickness of her response.
As he walked away, he glanced back and waved. Embarrassed to be caught still looking, Annie tried to appear busy. Gerry turned back around and bumped into a library cart. She stuck her head down as if she hadn't seen a thing.
For two hours she pretended to study. Was she really going to the bar with Gerry Griffin? What if someone from home saw them? It'd be all over St. Jude in no time.
Finally, she gave up and went back to her room, whether to change her mind or her clothes she didn't know.
She did neither. At nine sharp he was at the door, and in a fresh set of clothes, she noticed. Then again, he'd hardly have shown up in his coffee-stained T-shirt.
Too late now, she decided. She was off to Dewey's on a Friday night with Gerry Griffin. And so what? She was only having a beer with him, for heaven's sake.
The clear night was deceptively cold. Within minutes of leaving residence, her nose and ears were stinging. Gerry made several attempts at small talk, but Annie, head buried in the neck of her coat, was preoccupied with trying to prevent frostbite.
Spotting Dewey's just ahead, Gerry grabbed her mittened hand and started a mad dash down the road. “Come on, it's freezing,” he yelled.
Annie had little choice but to hold on tight and try to keep up. Unsure whether the ache in her chest was from running or the feel of her hand clutched in his, she was grateful for the breathless sprint down the hard-packed street. As soon as they reached Dewey's, he let go of her hand to open the door. Inside, the hot smoky air swirled around them. Someone yelled to Gerry from across the room and he and Annie shuffled through the crowd to join a large table filled with Gerry's friends. Annie was glad to see several familiar faces in a nearby booth in case she needed a change of company.
She never gave them a second thought. She had a great night, the most unexpected part of which turned out to be Gerry Griffin himself. There he was with a diverse group of interesting people, confident, self-assured, attractive in a familiar sort of way. Annie found herself studying him at odd moments, his face and his manner. Once, he caught her eye and smiled. This time she smiled back.
The evening was a new experience for Annie. She'd grown through her teens as a medium-sized fish in a very small pond. But that night she sat with an even smaller fish from the same pond, a capelin to her cod, and he was taking the lead. She realized that life's playing field had levelled off, that each person at the table had the chance to become whoever or whatever they wanted. She felt an incredible freedom, a euphoric sensation of liberty and emancipation. Had she only had two beers?
Yes, only two, and Gerry had paid for both. She'd resisted at first, but then she found herself letting him, on some level vaguely aware that by doing so she was allowing the evening to become something more closely resembling a date. A small voice inside her had piped up, “a date with a cousin.” She'd shoved it back down.
During a break in the music the others went out for a toke or to visit at other tables. She and Gerry found themselves sitting virtually alone talking about high school.
“Do you think you'll ever move back to St. Jude?” he asked.
“Never really thought much about it. You?”
“Never.” He took a sip of beer. “The bigger the city the better.” “I don't mind St. Jude but I know what you mean. Everyone knows everyone.”
“Exactly. Here, I'm invisible. No one cares where I came from.”
Annie nodded, surprised that he was so open. Maybe that's what happened when you left the small town behind - you left your inhibitions there too. She liked that idea. In fact, she liked it so much that she found herself telling him the whole story of asking Mercedes for a loan, something she'd been too humiliated to tell anyone except Cathy.
“She wouldn't give you anything?” He was suddenly very serious.
“Nothing but a lecture. I wish I'd never asked the old witch in the first place. Thank God I got the RA job. I don't know how I'd do it otherwise.”
“Nothing? Nothing at all?”
Annie frowned. “Like I said, nothing. Why?”
He looked uncomfortable. “It's justâ¦ it doesn't sound like her.”
“I know you think she's this lovely old lady. Well, let me tell youâ”
“No, it's not that.”
He started to say something, then stopped abruptly and looked away.
Annie could feel the fun draining from the evening. “You know, we were having a fine time till we started talking about her. Can we just drop the subject?”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he smiled. “You're right. Another beer?”
“Sure, but it's my turn to buy.”
“No, no, it's on me.”
Just like that they were back on track. They laughed and talked and drank more beer, enjoying the music and the people and especially each other. And at the end of the night, Gerry walked her home.
“So. Here we are,” he said as they stood outside her residence.
The night was still and silent. He moved closer. “That was fun tonight.”
“Yeah, I had fun too.”
More silence. She knew she should say good night and go inside, but she didn't.
“Me too,” he said, taking the tips of her fingers in his. Then he bent down and gave her the sweetest little kiss, not quite on her lips or cheek, somewhere in between. In a husky voice he whispered, “Good night, my Annie Byrne.”
“Good night,” she mumbled, barely recognizing the gravelly voice as her own.
Once inside, she stood unmoving, wondering at her own intense disappointment. Her body had this raw ache, and her heart felt full and empty at the same time. As she leaned against the door, it hit her that more than anything in the world she had wanted Gerry Griffin to kiss her, to hold her tight in his arms and really truly kiss her for a good long time. What the hell was happening to her?
She went to bed, her head and heart lightly buzzing, and not entirely from the alcohol. By morning her outlook hadn't changed, except by then it was tinged with a nuance of sweet surprise, as if she had discovered a tiny treasure, one that had been hiding right in front of her. She wanted to hug herself all day.
When Cathy got back on the Sunday, Annie casually let slip what she'd done on the Thursday night. Cathy was full of questions - about what they ate and drank, what she wore, who was there, and in particular, what they talked about. As Cathy was leaving, she hesitated. “Did you and Gerry talk about your aunt at all?”
“Yeah, but it kind of put a damper on things so we changed the subject.” Annie eyed her friend. “Something on your mind?”
“Well, it's about Gerry and your aunt.”
“Look, I know it used to bug me but that's ages ago. Who cares about that now?”
Cathy shrugged. “Maybe you should.”
An uneasy knot tugged at Annie's navel. “What are you going on about, Cath?”
“Look, I'm not meant to be telling you this, but I think I better before you and him get too chummy. Did you know that Mercedes is responsible for him being here?”
“That's baloney. He came in third and earned his place just like the rest of us.”
“That's not what I meant. Did you know she's paying his way through?”
Annie paused, hurt that Mercedes would lend Gerry money when she'd gotten nothing but grief. Why hadn't he mentioned it? Was he embarrassed? Whatever the reason, she could hardly blame him for Mercedes' actions. “Look, that's their business if she lent him money. I wish I'd known, but it's not the end of the world.”
“It's not a loan, Annie. Mercedes is paying for the whole thing - books, tuition, residence - and he doesn't have to pay back one cent. His very own guardian angel.”
Annie felt like she'd been punched. Was her own flesh and blood paying for him but not for her? How miserable could the woman get? And Gerry! To think Annie had confided in him and all the while his pockets were filled with money that should have been hers. From the sounds of it, he only took the RA position to avoid going home, while Annie barely survived on two jobs. Everything but her underwear was a hand-me-down. She even got her sister to cut her hair. And Gerry had insisted on paying for the beer! How generous!
“Who told you this?” she asked, praying it was just an idle rumour.
“Mom, and she heard it from Sadie herself. I'm not supposed to tell anyone.”
“The fucking gall of them.”
Annie could hardly believe her stupidity.
Violet Green's plush forest-green carpet was lined with the ridges of a fresh vacuuming. Her glass coffee table sparkled with a perfect see-through shine, and, in the kitchen, the upgraded appliances looked as clean and new as the day they were installed. All thanks to Sadie Griffin, who had the art of cleaning down to a science. No one knew dirt better than Sadie.
Jesus have mercy, will she ever shut up.
Sadie blasted the sink with Lysol, then put her head down and scrubbed.
“And like I said to Cathy,” Violet was saying as she set her tea cup back in its saucer, “it doesn't matter if Gerry never did well in the earlier grades.”
How much frigging longer am I going to hear about that goddamn scholarship? Two years on and she's still bringing it up every chance she gets.
“The last year is what matters most,” Violet went on. “And Gerry did just fine.”
“That he did.” Sadie leaned harder on the scrub brush.
“I suppose you'd call him a late bloomer. Ha-ha.”
Sadie turned the water to full blast. Steam filled the air between where she stood and Violet sat drinking tea and eating Jam Jams. Sadie scrubbed harder.
“Not like my Cathy.”
Miserable bitch! I been here four hours now, cleaning shitty toilets, changing sweaty sheets, shining fancy silver, and that one gets herself tea and cookies and planks her arse at the table and eats them right in front of me. Boils me.
“And dear Mercedes, what a saint. Imagine paying for Gerry like that, such a good-hearted woman. And no, I never told anyone. I can keep a secret, believe me.”
“Thank you, Violet.”
Wish I never went and told her about that frigging money.
Violet looked displeased, just as she always did when Sadie used her first name. “Yes. Wellâ¦it's too bad, though. Mercedes deserves some credit.”
“Indeed she does, Violet.”
Damned if I'll be calling her Mrs. Green.
“And like I said to my Cathy, I was so proud of her for winning, but really, there's others not asâ¦well, as well-off, to put it bluntly, but what can you do? Cathy won fair and square, no matter what poor Annie felt about it.” Violet took a sip of tea.
Sadie folded the towel and laid it on the counter.
“And poor Francis, getting beat out by Gerry. Must have been a shock.”
The nerve of the woman, some days it was too much.
Violet looked up and caught Sadie's eye. “Oh, but like I said, Gerry earned it, yes indeed he did. And don't you let anyone tell you different now, Sadie.”
“Don't worry about that, Violet.” Sadie picked up her coat and stood waiting, just as she did every week, for her thirty-seven dollars.
Violet took another sip of tea and popped the last piece of cookie into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed, and wiped her mouth with her napkin. Finally, she stood up.
Take your frigging time, why don't you? Not like I got nothing else to do.
Violet took down her purse from the kitchen shelf and, reaching inside, brought out her wallet. She pulled out a twenty, a ten and two fives. Pursing her lips, she put back one of the fives. She opened her coin purse and counted out four dollars in change.
“There you go, Sadie. Plus a little something extra for you.”
Sadie shoved the money into her coat pocket. “I'll see you next week, Violet.”
Damned if I'll thank the woman, either.
Gerry spots a six-pack at the back of the fridge. As he is opening one up, his mother returns from the bathroom again. This time he can smell the liquor on her. The more she drinks, the more careless she gets about hiding the evidence.
Sadie tutts. “That Kevin, always bringing in darn beer.”
“Glad he did. That ham was good and salty.” He takes a long swig. As always, the malty aroma of beer reminds him. He sees her, over the rim of his glass, that first night at Dewey's. When she'd smiled at him, her eyes had registered a sense of surprise. In that moment he'd felt they shared a secret, a feeling that had lasted throughout the night, and, in the end, far longer.
“Gerard?” His mother is eyeing him strangely.
“A million miles away again, you were. Anyway, I said Father got his first funeral Mass tomorrow.”
“You know, our new young Father James. Who else would I be talking about? I think he's right nervous. He didn't have much chance to get to know her so what's he supposed to say? But I knows he'll do grand. Fine man, smart and educated, not like the bunch around here. Big books all over the house - religion, psychology, all kinds of stuff. Pities him sometimes I do, wasting away in St. Jude...”
If there's one thing his mother likes to talk about more than the neighbours, it's the resident clergy. The difference is that she speaks of the priests with more affection and admiration than she speaks of her children, except for him. This no longer embarrasses Gerry. He cannot control his mother, what she says or does, what she thinks, why she thinks it. Sadie is a force unto herself. He's known that since he knew anything.
“â¦what can he be saying about Mercedes?” Sadie is still talking. “I'm sure they met, though I don't think she was going to Mass at the end, never saw her there for ages. Not like some, always there, all pious and righteous, likes of that Violet and Dwight Green. The way them two prances around town, Mr. and Mrs. St. Jude they acts like. Too uppity to clean their own dirt. Hires me to scrape the muck off the floor and the shit out of their toilets. Nerve, ordering me around for a few measly bucks. Frigid old bat she is. And him, acting so upstanding. Hah, I knows about him I do. Puny little bugger. Good match, you ask me.”
“I imagine he knows enough about her. She had a good reputation.”
“Who? Oh, Mercedes. Yeah, sure. Want cake? I done your favourite.”
He rubs his stomach. “Sorry, but I'm stuffed. I can't eat another bite.”
“And to think I wouldn't let the boys touch it all day. And Mark too, caught him with a finger in the icing, stuck it right in his mouth before I had the chance to stop him. Saucy as a crackie he's getting to be. Debra should take a hand to that boy.”
Gerry taps her gently on the nose. “And you'd be the first to stop her if she did.”
“You would so. You got a soft spot for our Mark, you know you do.”
Sadie shakes her head, but she's smiling. “Anyway, you want cake or not?”
Gerry is so full there's no room for guilt. “I'll have it for breakfast,” he teases.
Sadie frowns. “Gerard, not for breakfastâ”
“I'm just codding you, girl. We'll have some after the burial, how's that?”
Her face brightens. “Yes, the funeral. Tomorrow be here soon enough.”
Gerry smiles despite himself. Leave it to his mother to perk up at the mention of Mercedes Hann's funeral.
Annie catches her reflection in the mirror above the laundry sink, the puffy skin, the eyes that have forgotten how to be happy. Is this what she's been reduced to, crying her heart out in a dingy basement storeroom? She presses a damp cloth to her face and holds it there. The cold wetness feels fresh against her skin.
She gives herself a few minutes then heads back upstairs. Her mother is talking on the hall phone. Annie wonders crossly who would call so late. As she nears the kitchen she hears Aiden's voice, still bleating on about the Griffins.
“And you know Sadie. Thinks the sun shines out of her darling Gerry's very arsehole.” His voice rises. “There she was on the church steps, bragging about âGerard's wonderful job in international investment', like she got a clue what that is, and his car and his fancy apartment. Pitied poor Father James, her paws were all over him.”
Joe chuckles. “Sadie loves the priests.”
“Then she says, âOh, and the women! Dear Father, sure they're always after him, not a lick of pride these days, ' and on and on she went. I thought she'd never shut up.”
“Sadie's one to be talking about pride. Her own husband had to leave town to get shed of her.” Pat lets his wrist go limp. “Not that she was really his type.''
Sadie is the last person Annie wants to defend but she can't listen to them slag the wife and excuse the husband. “Like he was any prize,” she says as she walks into the room. “Leaving a wife and youngsters to chase gay tail in Montreal. Men!”
“Now Annie, don't be bitter. It makes your face go all scow-ways,” Joe teases gently. “You puts me in mind of Mercie herself when you gets that snarl on you.”
“Quick, cheer me up,” Annie retorts, reaching for a clean mug from the cupboard.
Lucinda comes in. She waits for a quiet moment. “That was Tom Kennedy on the phone. He wants to see the family back here after the graveyard to read the will.”
Annie whirls around. “What do you mean, read the will?”
“That's how she wanted it done, everyone together in the same room.”
“Sounds like one of them soap operas on TV,” says Pat.
“So that's how you spends your time off the boat.” Aiden pushes Pat lightly. “You're a real little woman, aren't you, cooking in the kitchen and watching the soaps.”
Pat swats at his brother. “Get on, Aiden, I do not.”
“Anyway,” Lucinda says, raising a hand to her temple, “Tom's been called to Toronto on some emergency and so we have to do it tomorrow, right after the burial.”
Joe arches back to look up at her. “Can't we let the dirt settle on her first?”
Lucinda shakes her head. “He said Mercedes' exact instructions were to do it as soon as possible and before anybody left St. Jude. With Tom having to go, it can't wait.”
Annie plunks the empty mug down on the counter. “Her and her exact instructions. Bad enough she insisted on a home wake. Who does that in this day and age? Even the poorest bunch in town goes to the funeral home. But no, not Queen Mercedes, she's got to take over the whole house and everyone in it on her way out.”
“Annie, if we can't do her one last wish, what's the good of us?”
Annie is ready to argue the point until she notices her mother's eyes. The whites are streaked with red and the skin beneath is dark and wrinkled.
“What the hell's she up to now?” asks Aiden.
Pat tugs at his beard. “Three days dead and soon to be buried, she's still at it.”
“Always in control, even under the dirt.” Annie waits, expecting someone else to comment. The only sound is the drone of the fridge, amplified by the unusual silence.
“You know what this means,” Aiden finally says. “It's probably true.”
“What is? Mom, what's he talking about?”
“Well, Annie,” Aiden says before Lucinda can answer, “it seems Mercedes may be having the last laugh after all. You seeâ”
“Aiden Hann, you're just making matters worse with your gossip,” Lucinda interrupts. “Listening to the likes of Bessie Foley!”
“Bessie Foley?” Annie sits down next to Joe who gives her hand a gentle squeeze. “She still at Kennedy's office?”
Pat nods. “Just what you wants in a lawyer's office, Sadie Griffin's apprentice.”
Annie turns to Aiden. “So what did Bessie say?”
Lucinda raises her hand imperiously. “To make a long story short, Annie, Aiden here has been dating Bessie's niece, although I'm not sure that's the right word for what those two have been doing.” She gives Aiden a harsh, disapproving glance. “Never learn, will you? Anyway, Janet, the niece, she said Bessie hinted that the will's going to be a bit of an eye-opener.”
“What Janet said Bessie said,” Aiden interjects, “and I was there, remember, and in all my glory, I might add, was that some people were in for quite a surprise.”
Pat snorts. “Who wants her few lousy bucks anyway?”
Aiden cocks an eyebrow. “Few? How about half a million?”
Lucinda's hand slaps the counter. “The gall of that Bessie Foley. I've a good mind to report her to Tom Kennedy.”
Annie eyes her mother. “Yet you're not surprised at the amount.”
“Oh, don't mind that one. Besides, it's nobody's business.”
She pauses. “There is something else, though. Tom let it slip just now that Gerry Griffin is in the will too.”
“Wouldn't you know it!” says Aiden. “I always knew he had an ulterior motive.”
Pat, who has been tilting his chair back on its rear legs, lets it falls forward with a thump. “What is it with her and that son of a bitch? She'd do anything to spite us, don't matter we never did a thing to her. And he's the biggest bastard I ever met. Well, I've had it with the pair of them.” He stands up. “I'll sit with her tonight and then say good riddance, once and for all. Come on, Aiden.”
As Aiden follows him out, Lucinda drops into his chair. She seems on the verge of tears, a state Annie has become uncomfortably familiar with since arriving home.
“That bunch never were any good.” Joe is suddenly wide awake. “What can you expect the way they carries on, bedding their own kin? God, them Griffins been at that long as anyone can remember. No wonder half the youngsters don't make it.
Look at Sadie, sure, burying two of her own.”
“Really?” says Annie. “Sadie had two more children?”
Lucinda frowns and shakes her head at Joe. He ignores her and leans in close to Annie. “According to rumour, one was a dwarf and the other was so handicapped they said it was lucky it died.” He lowers his voice. “Thing is, no one ever saw them. Home births, they were. And Sadie had them in the ground so fast it'd make your head spin.”
“Poor Sadie. I actually feel bad for her.”
“It's all in the blood, and Sadie and Angus got the same in their veins.”
Annie says nothing. She's not so sure she wants to know any more.
Joe is undeterred. “They were all originally from Little Cove before they moved into here. There was only a few families there, and the brothers and sisters from one family married brothers and sisters from another family, and so they got more related. After that it's the luck of the draw for the youngsters. Some are okay, others not.”
“For heaven sakes, Joe,” Lucinda pleads, “it's all gossip and hearsay. Don't be talking about stuff like that, not tonight.”
“All I knows is that half the Griffins were bad in the head.” His lip curls up in distaste. “The worst of the lot was that Paddy though, a sick dirty thing from day one, he was.” He slaps the Formica table and the cups and spoons rattle in their saucers. “I should of took care of him when I had the chance. Nothing but a goddamn pervert, that Paddy Griffin.”
It was a typical spring night in St. Jude, the ground still frozen, a hint of a thaw in the air. Joe Hann had spent the evening playing darts at the town bar, Patron's Pub. Joe liked his beer and he liked his whiskey. He also liked to spend time with the ladies, unlike his older brother, Callum, who, at twenty-one, found himself tongue-tied around women. Callum had passed the night at home reading, alone except for his father, whom he'd carried upstairs earlier. Through the open window he could hear the shrieks and laughter of children playing hide and seek in a field down the way. His ten-year-old sister was among them. At nine-thirty, he went to call her in. She came right away. Mercedes liked to curl up in bed with a book before sleep.
Joe decided to go home early so he could go fishing the next morning and still get back in time for Mass. He took a shortcut through the woods, past the bog meadow, which would bring him up behind his family's rundown house on the outskirts of town. This route also made it easier to enter through the rear door and avoid the squeaky hinge in the front that Mercedes had been complaining about for weeks and which he kept forgetting to fix.
The sliver of moon that lit his way through the woods gradually withdrew behind a mist of clouds. Rounding the last clump of trees on the final approach to the house, he came upon Paddy Griffin, pants undone, grunting in the darkness.
Paddy was Joe's uncle, sort of, not that Joe had any respect for him. When Paddy was well into his thirties, he had married Joe's mother's stepsister, Nell - she was sixteen at the time - and taken her to Toronto. Nell returned six years later, alone, pregnant, the mother of two girls. She gave birth to Paddy's son, Angus, six months later, by which time she'd taken up with Henry Byrne. Two months after Angus was born, Nell was pregnant again. When she died giving birth, Henry, heartbroken, went out fishing one night and never made it back. With Nell and Henry dead, Henry's parents took on the job of raising the baby. They named him Dermot.
“What the hell are you up to, Griffin?” Joe called out.
Paddy started frantically pulling his clothes together. “Just having a piss. Who the fuck wants to know anyway?”
“It's me, Joe Hann. Christ sakes, piss into the trees at least so I don't walk in it.”
Paddy started to stagger and sway all of a sudden, mumbling incoherently.
“Get on home,” Joe advised. “Don't want to pass out. Gets awful cold at night.”
Paddy spun around and, with a surprisingly sure step, ran off into the darkness.
Heading once again towards the house, Joe's eye was drawn upward to where an oil lamp illuminated his sister's room. Through the window he could see the back of Mercedes' head. Her small hand came up to guide a hairbrush through her long dark hair, past her bare shoulders. Joe immediately dropped his eyes back to the ground.
He wondered why she hadn't pulled the shade. Then he remembered. Weeks ago, maybe even longer, she'd asked him to fix it. It hadn't seemed important at the time.
Swinging back around, he searched the empty darkness. Nothing was visible except the shadows of a late-night wood.
First thing the next morning, he repaired and hung Mercedes' shade. Fishing could wait for another day. The front door's hinge continued to squeak.
One evening after supper, when Mercedes went out to play ball, Joe asked Callum what he knew about Paddy.
“Nothing good. Mona Burke was talking down at the store, said her cousin up in Toronto heard some pretty nasty rumours. Apparently the reason Nell left him was she caught him doing something to one of their little girls, the dirty bugger. Mona hinted Paddy had some kind of disease too, from a whore up north. Not that I believe everything out of Mona's mouth, but there's something about that man makes my skin crawl.” Callum reached for Joe's plate. “Why you asking?”
Joe had a queasy feeling in his gut. “Well, I was heading home through the woods last week and I bumped into him taking a leak, at least that's what he said he was doing with his hand on himself. I don't know why he'd be back there at that hour, and it seemed some queer the way he was staring right at the house. After he took off, I saw Merce was up in her bedroom, and I still hadn't gone and fixed that shade yet.”
Callum was staring at the ceiling, up in the direction of Mercedes' room. “That filthy disgusting pig.” His voice was bruised with rage.
“Now Cal, slow down.” Joe laid a calming hand on his brother's arm. “We're not sure what he was up to. Let's just keep an eye on him.”
“We better tell Merce so she can stay clear of him.”
“Go on, there's no need for that, is there?”
“Sure there is, so she keeps her distance.” Callum stood, his hands full of dishes.
“If we goes telling her that stuff, she'll be scared to leave the house. Besides, she's too young to know about what he was doing at himself.”
“Joe, if she's old enough for him to be looking at her like that, she's probably old enough to understand what he was doing.”
“Lord's sake,” Joe whispered, “she's ten years old. Just because he's a dirty bastard don't mean she got to hear about it.”
“She got a right to know so she can protect herself.”
“Go on, Cal, she don't need to be knowing stuff like that yet.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Who's going to tell her, anyway?” Callum hesitated. “Well, you saw him there, but I can talk to her if you want.”
“Look, I probably got the whole thing wrong,” Joe backtracked. “I bet he was just having a piss. Yeah, now I thinks on it, that's all it was.”
Callum eyed him doubtfully. “If he comes near herâ¦”
“Don't you worry,” Joe promised, coming over to help with the washing up. “If he shows his face near here, I'll cut the legs out from under him. All three of them.”
As it happened, the problem resolved itself. Model citizen that he was, Paddy had gotten into debt with several local businesses and abruptly left town. Nobody was disappointed. Even his mother at the post office appeared relieved to have him gone.
By the time Callum and Joe decided to try their luck in New York a few years later, their biggest worry was how their sister would manage left in the questionable care of their father. To make life easier for her, Callum had electricity and plumbing installed and arranged for Burke's to extend credit to Mercedes, and Mercedes only, for food and supplies.
They'd forgotten all about Paddy Griffin.
St. Jude was originally a fishing village. As such, it had its share of widows. When the sea took a man, it took his family's livelihood as well, leaving his wife and children to make do. A few ounces of meat would flavour a pot to feed a family of three or six or ten. Hand-me-downs were handed down a few more times. With no man in the house, life was extra hard. When Sadie Griffin's father drowned, her mother was six months pregnant. Sadie had been making do since the day she was born.
“Big bow wow, Tow-wow-wowâ¦”
Five-year-old Sadie Duffie sang a ditty as she swished the broom across the wood plank floor. Her singing stopped at the sound of someone running across the gravelled yard and up the rickety front steps.
Mabel Duffie's plump body burst into the kitchen. “Ma! Ma!” she yelled, sending the cat scurrying into the neat pile of dirt that Sadie had just swept together.
“Mabel!” Sadie yelled.
“I saw the toilet!” Mabel panted.
Sadie turned to her mother. “Look what she done.”
“Weren't me. Stupid cat did it.”
“I hates that thing.” Sadie smacked at the cat with the broom. “Go away, cat.”
Edna Duffie's crooked arthritic fingers placed a small piece of salt beef onto the boiling cabbage. She peered at her older daughter over the steam. “Get on, girl. They really got a toilet?” “Who? Who got one?” Sadie asked. She'd never seen a real toilet.
“The Hanns. Merce bragged about it all week. Wouldn't shut up for nothing.”
“So they don't got to go to a outhouse no more?” Sadie could not imagine that.
Mabel shrugged. “Don't know, but the toilet's right next to her bedroom.”
Sadie tried to picture needing to go in the middle of the night and only having to walk to the next room. She couldn't. “Did you go pee on it?”
“No. I wanted to but she didn't say to, and I wasn't going to let on like I cared.”
“Why? She's our cousin.” Sometimes Mabel didn't make much sense to Sadie.
“Some cousin. Wouldn't even show me the answers on the history test the other day. Thinks she knows everything, that one.”
“That's the Hanns for you,” said Edna. “Chock full of their-selves. Don't know why Mary ever married that Farley. The death of her, he was.”
“That Merce is nothing but a tomboy,” said Mabel. “Whenever we plays ball she always wants to be on the boys' team.”
“I likes playing ball,” said Sadie, sweeping around Mabel's feet.
“So she got a eye for the boys, eh?” Edna eased herself into the rocking chair.
“Nah, don't know they're alive other than to kick the ball. A few of the older fellows were teasing her the other day and she swore at them, right out loud, too. Sister Anne heard her though the window. Got in some trouble, she did. Serves her right.”
“Her father falled on the ground by Sullivan's,” Sadie offered, trying to be part of the conversation. She put the broom away and found a blanket to cover Edna's legs.
“Farley! Foolish gommel lives at the bootleggers, he do,” said her mother.
“What's a gommel?” asked Sadie.
“He's off his rocker, he is,” said Mabel, ignoring Sadie. “With a father like that, don't know why they acts so high and mighty.”
“What's his rocker?” Sadie asked, looking at her mother in the rocking chair.
“She means he's not all there,” said her mother, pointing to her head. “Nuts.”
“Yeah,” said Mabel, “and the house is some dirty, even if they do got a toilet.”
“Who needs a toilet, anyway?” said her mother.
Sadie glanced out the window where the outhouse was partly hidden behind a row of trees. She'd been putting it off for the last hour. She hated going out there. It was always dirty and it smelled really bad. In the winter it was so cold she had a hard time doing her business once she got there. And in the summer there were flies everywhere, buzzing around the walls and the seat and in the hole. Sadie was always afraid one would fly up her bum. She didn't like to think what would happen then.
Mabel crossed her arms. “I wouldn't use one if I had one.”
Sadie looked at her sister like she was crazy. “I would. I'd use it all the time, even if I didn't need to go. I'd sit there and read the catalogue. You're nuts, Mabel.”
Sadie put on her coat and her rubber boots. Outside, she picked her way through the tall wet grass until she reached the outhouse. Flies buzzed aflitted around the door.
“I wish we had a toilet,” she said.
Gerry puts his plate in the sink and looks out the window. The empty clothesline is a white streak across the yard, cutting the night sky in two. Past a bank of clouds, he sees her again, standing in the window. This new image, his first in five years, has hovered in his mind all evening, entering his consciousness unbidden at random moments. If he closes his eyes, he imagines he can feel her body, warm to the touch of his fingers.
“Come and sit, Gerard.” His mother's voice is thick.
Every muscle in his body feels heavy, almost soggy from the mix of tea and beer and beans and turkey. Still, he's in better shape than his mother. Her “come and sit” had sounded like something far less pleasant. “I've been sitting all day,” he says as he refills the kettle in hopes of getting another cup of tea into her, unspiked this time.
Gerry pours boiling water into the pot and adds three tea bags. His mother would normally object to such wastefulness â one bag is enough for the both of them in her mind â but she's staring off into space, a spiteful set to her mouth. He opens a new can of Carnation and adds milk and sugar to two clean mugs, then fills them to the top with the strong, dark brew. “Here you go, a nice fresh spot of tea.”
Sadie blinks at the mugs. “Why you messing more cups?”
“That last bit of milk tasted funny. I opened a new can.”
“Tasted fine to me.”
“But you didn't have any?”
“Milk? 'Course I got milk.”
“In your tea, Ma.”
“What I said. Just look at it.”
“Not this cup.” His voice has risen. He deliberately lowers it and speaks slower. “I mean you didn't have any milk in your tea last time, remember?”
She looks uncertainly into the new cup. “Ohâ¦sureâ¦that one.”
“I thought a bit of milk would protect your stomach from all that caffeine.”
“Sure. Right. Bit of milk won't hurt. Nice to get a bit now and then,” she says with an odd cackle.
A burst of noise fills the air, sending his mother's body on a tight little bounce off her chair. She glances around. It's not until the second ring that her eyes light on the phone. Still she sits, a bemused look on her face. Gerry notices that the light on the answering machine he bought her for Christmas is flashing from an earlier message.
Sadie's hand flaps at the air. “That be Gus or Kevin at the bar. Box'll get it.”
Sure enough, it's his brother. When Gus has left a message and signed off, Gerry presses the retrieval button to hear the first one.
“Hello, Sadie. Tom Kennedy here,” says an authoritative male voice. “I need to see Gerry after the funeral. Have him call me tomorrow. Thank you.”
“What's that about?” Gerry asks.
“What's that got to do with me?” He has an uneasy feeling in his gut.
“Nobody called you up in Toronto to tell you about the will?”
“No. I don't know what you're talking about.”
“So if you don't know nothing about the will, then why you home?”
“For the funeral.”
Sadie folds her arms and looks pointedly off into the distance. “Didn't jump on a plane when Mabel died. My own sister, that's related. Proud of it too. Not like them Hanns. Too snooty to own up to us. Still you comes to hers. Travels all day, lies at work. Boils me. Poor Mabel dead in the ground.”
He waits for Sadie to finish and look at him. “I said why do I have to be there?”
“I just told you. Didn't I? Wellâ¦sure, I suppose you're in it.”
“Shit!” That's just what Annie needs. “Whatever it is, I'm not taking it.” As soon as he says it, he knows he shouldn't have, not in front of his mother.
“Why not?” she yells. “She owes you. All that running around. What's the matter with you? She owes me too, wasn't for me you wouldn't be here. Lots that one don't know, the rest of them too, but I knows, yes by Jesusâ”
“Ma, stop,” he begs softly. His head feels like it might split in half. He'd like just five minutes alone to remember Mercedes without his mother's interference. As for the will, he can only hope it's a token, a symbolic gesture from one friend to another.
Sadie opens her mouth. She appears ready to rant, then seems to change her mind. “Fine, Gerard. We'll wait and see.”
“That's right, Ma. Everything can wait until tomorrow.”
Tomorrow he'll see Annie. He's already waited five years for that.
Over fifty years have passed since the night Joe caught Paddy spying on Mercedes. Yet by the time he's finished recounting it, his gentle face is spidered with angry red veins.
“The thing is,” he continues, his voice bitter, “I knows my father was no saint, but he'd never have gone and left Merce on her own after we went to New York if Paddy Griffin hadn't talked him into it. I should have beat the daylights out of that bastard when I had the chance.”
Lucinda, her eyes dark circles of fatigue, is slumped in her chair. She looks sadder than she has all day. There is a sudden commotion from the back steps and she sits up straight. “Who on earth can that be?”
“Let's just not answer it,” Annie suggests. “It's almost midnight, too late for visitors now. And you two are exhausted.”
“I'd ignore it if it was the front but it's got to be one of our own if they're at the back.” Lucinda leaves behind an exhausted sigh as she goes to the door.
Annie hears the clack of the latch, followed by a ruckus as if somebody has fallen into the porch. She pushes back her chair. “Mom?”
“I'm fine,” Lucinda calls back to her. “We'll be right in.”
Seconds later, Callum Hann makes his way into the kitchen, looking far worse than he had that morning when he'd woken Annie up to welcome her home. There are food stains on his sweater and his previously crisp shirt collar has collapsed and crumpled. The little hair he has left lies in random strands about his head.
“For God's sake, Dad,” Lucinda is saying. “The doctor said take it easy. Look at the state you're in. You'd never know you to be the same man from breakfast to now.”
Annie takes Callum's arm. “Granddad, what are you doing here at this hour?”
“Well my Annie, I was home looking out the window when young Joe passed by. Never waved or looked in, just went right on by. So, I decided to join him.”
“Sorry, Cal,” says Joe. “The thought of Mercie laid out in the parlour got me to thinking, and I thought I'd come and stay here. You don't mind, do you?”
“Sounds like just the ticket. I don't think I could sleep out home knowing she was four doors down and gracing this earth for the last time.”
“But where am I going to put you?” Lucinda looks utterly worn out.
“They can have the twin beds in my room. I'll take the couch in the basement.” Annie lays her arm on her mother's shoulders. She seems shorter and frailer than Annie remembers. A flood of affection rushes through her and she kisses the side of Lucinda's head. “Why don't you head on up, Mom? You've had a long day and it's going to be a longer one tomorrow. The last thing we need is you conking out on us.”
Lucinda gives in easily. “Maybe you can get Pat to cook them something?”
“I know he's a better cook than me, but I've had a lot less to drink. Don't worry, I'll get them a mug-up and settle them in.” Playing caregiver to her mother is a new role for Annie, yet they both adapt with little effort. “Go. And take Dad with you.”
“Thanks, Annie.” Lucinda's hand grasps her arm. “I'll see you in the morning.”
With her parents off to bed, Annie pokes at the embers in the wood stove and puts the kettle on. The two old men sit, quiet and peaceful, as she cuts a blood pudding into rounds and starts to fry them up.
“Well, Joe, our Mercie is really gone, isn't she?” Callum eventually says.
“Dead as she can be.” A note of wonder steals into Joe's voice. “Can you believe we're this old? Sometimes I looks in the mirror and sees the old man looking back at me. âWho's that old geezer?' I says to myself. To think that our Mercie is but a corpse in the next room and here we sit, two old farts, still alive, still breathing.”
“Growing old and ugly beats the alternative,” Callum says. “Better to be old thanâ¦” He stops.
“Than what?” asks Joe.
Annie turns around.
Callum is staring out into the night beyond the kitchen window. He seems lost in thought or memories, perhaps both. Annie is reminded of summer vacations in Bay D'Esprits. Her grandfather would sit for ages looking, not out to the horizon, but over at the cliffs on the other side. Once when she was about nine or ten, she asked him what he thought about when he looked across that ocean. “I thinks about life, my Annie.” He'd paused briefly before adding, his voice almost a whisper. “And I thinks about death.”
“I'm not sure Merce would have agreed,” he says now.
His tone catches Annie's attention. “You saying she knew she was going to die?”
He nods. “She wasn't scared to talk about it either. She told us what she wanted and who she wanted to be there.” He looks at Annie. “That's why your mother badgered you into coming. Merce told us that more than anyone you had to be here. We promised we'd see to it. After that, she called for the lawyer to review her papers. Once she got everything arranged she seemed settled about the whole thing, like she'd made her own decision.” He sighs. “I hope I'm that peaceful when my time comes.”
Annie spreads butter on several slices of her mother's bread, which is almost, but not quite, as good as Mercedes'. “But I thought she died suddenly.”
“In the end she did, I suppose. But that's dying, isn't it? No matter how slow it is in coming, that one moment must be sudden. There's no going back, no undoing it.” He pauses, then continues matter-of-factly. “Lucinda spent the afternoon with her, then Sadie Griffin dropped by that evening with communion. Sadie come out and said Merce wasn't looking good, maybe she needed a drop of tea. By the time I made the tea and brought it in, she was gone. Just like that. Sudden. Alone.”
“What exactly did she die of, anyway?” asks Annie.
“Hard to say. She'd been poorly for a while. Then old Rufus died. Took the good out of her, that did. Other than that, we don't know. She refused to go to the hospital. And she never went to a doctor in over forty years.”
“I always found that odd, an educated woman like her refusing to go to a doctor.”
“She used to say she'd rather put her faith in God than some man who thought he was God.” Callum's voice is tense with a resentment that he makes no effort to hide.
“They say only the good die young.” Joe's voice is angry as well. “You'd think with her disposition she'd have outlived us all.”
“Don't talk ill of her, Joe, not tonight. I know she was hard at times, but Merce was a complicated woman. She had a hard complicated life.”
Joe rounds on him. “Christ on the cross, Cal, sometimes you don't got the sense God gave a cat. What was so complicated about her and her life? She turned mean, is all, after the old man left her to fend for herself.” He folds his arms and looks away. “Worse things could happen to a girl, my Betty could have told you that.”
Annie glances swiftly at Callum. He has told her all about Joe's tragic marriage, how Betty committed suicide after their baby died, but she's never heard Joe speak of it.
Callum reaches out to him. “I know Mercie wasn't the easiest person, but she did everything she could for me and Lucinda when we landed on her doorstep.”
Joe ignores the gesture. Despite the exhaustion and the liquor, despite the long journey from New York and the reason for coming, despite all that or maybe because of it, he does not back down. “Good? To you and little Lucinda? That must be why she was in such an all-fired rush to get on her own. Lucinda knew better than to get pregnant by Dermot Byrne and you knows it. As far as I'm concerned, she figured it was the best way to get out from under the clutches of her Great Aunt Mercedes.”
Callum looks bewildered. “I just don't understand why you're so bitter.”
“She's the only one gets to be bitter? Look, me and her got on fine when she was little, but she got too full of herself, or something, I don't know. Ever since that time she went to New York, I could never talk to her after. I wouldn't have minded for me. But what about little Sheilagh? What about Betty?” His voice chokes with years of resentment. “Merce didn't even come when they died. She was in New York and she didn't even show up for their funerals.” Joe shuts his mouth firmly then, but his fingers twitch on the table and his leg jigs up and down beneath it.
Not so Callum. Eyes all but closed, he sits in his chair, drained, unmoving.
Three months after his wife died of a brain tumour, Callum and ten-year-old Lucinda returned to St. Jude. Mercedes had barely a week's notice but she assured Callum that it was enough, that it was all she needed, and she welcomed them back home. With all of the renovations she'd done over the years, Callum barely recognized the place.
After Judith's death, Callum had hoped that life in New York might actually improve. This callous honesty was never voiced to one living being; it was barely given definition in his own mind. Yet, after having lived with Judith for more than a decade, the thought was unavoidable. However, except for the barest civility from her sister Ruth, and her father, who was also his boss, the remainder of Judith's family wanted nothing to do with them. Callum didn't care what they thought of him, but he could not expect Lucinda to understand. Having survived ten years with an angry, resentful mother, years of trying, and ultimately failing, to live up to Judith's high society standards, Lucinda did not need further rejection. Quiet and reserved, she had grown into a serious young girl who cautiously watched the life that swirled around her, yet said little about it. When Judith died, Lucinda withdrew even further. She would let no one enter, not even her father. Her slender frame became even thinner as she ate less and less. Finally, hoping for a second chance for himself and his daughter, perhaps for his sister as well, Callum decided to return to St. Jude.
But from the beginning, Lucinda was uncomfortable around her aunt. She said Mercedes was too proper in the way she acted, the way she dressed, the way her hair was never loose around her face. “And she's so bony, she's all bones and knuckles. And her eyes are really weird, like they're too hot or something,” she told Callum.
Callum laughed. “Is that all?”
Lucinda hesitated. “She's always watching me.” Her voice was low, secretive.
“She's just glad to have you here.”
“But, Daddy, she scares me.”
“You're still getting used to each other. Merce will stop that soon.”
But Mercedes didn't. For long moments, minutes even, she would stare at Lucinda, sometimes with a small smile playing on her face, at other times more sombrely. Lucinda did her best not to be left alone with her.
One early fall morning, Lucinda awoke with a sore throat and stuffy nose. Despite the heat crackling from the wood stove, Callum could see shudders ripple through her. Mercedes offered to stay home with her but Lucinda insisted on going to school.
Callum spent the day repairing his boat, but headed home early to see how she was feeling. As he approached the house, her voice carried to him through the screen door.
“Mother said you were crazy. âYour father's crazy sister' she called you. She said to watch out for you if Daddy took me back here. She said to call Aunt Ruth in New York if I needed anything.” Her voice kept rising. “She said Aunt Ruth knew everything about you and she'd know what to do if you ever tried to take me away.”
Callum ran to the door. By the time he reached it, Lucinda was screaming. “Stop it. Stop staring at me. Where's Daddy? Where is he?”
He rushed inside. Mercedes was sitting at the table, so still she could have been glued to the chair. Across from her a wild-eyed Lucinda clasped a soupspoon in her hand like a weapon. The only sound was the sizzle and spit of flaming wood.
“Go to your room, Lucinda. Right now,” Callum ordered.
The spoon clattered to the table, but it was Mercedes who stood. “Stay,” she said in a shaky voice. “This is my fault. Please, I have to leave.” Blind to Callum's hand, she stumbled from the room.
He turned to his daughter. “How could you...?” He stopped, alarmed at the fever in her eyes and the fear and confusion on her small face. “Lucinda? Are you all right?”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Iâ¦I was afraid youâ¦you wouldn't come back.”
Callum knelt down and hugged her until she stopped trembling, then he carried her to the chair by the fire and held her until she fell asleep. Praying only that he was doing the best he could at that single moment in time, and that somehow he would find a way to fix what had happened, Callum eventually drifted off, momentarily at peace within the rhythm of his daughter's constant breathing.
A voice stirred him from sleep. Night had settled over the house, and he looked at Lucinda's face in the near-darkness.
Her lips moved but her eyes were closed. “Please no Mamaâ¦sorry Mamaâ¦. sorry.” For the umpteenth time, he wondered at the control that Judith had insisted upon having over Lucinda, and her equal insistence that he mind his own business. “If you know what's good for you,” she'd often added.
Holding Lucinda closer, he tried to reassure her sleeping body but the increased pressure broke her slumber. Sleep-filled eyes peered up at Callum. Within seconds, he watched the fear take over once again.
“I'm here. Shh,” he murmured, brushing his hand down her long brown hair.
“Daddy, I'm sorry about Aunt Mercedes. But she frightens me.”
“I know. It's okay.” He kept smoothing her hair until he sensed that she'd begun to relax. “There's one thing I can tell you. Your aunt wants only the best for you.”
“But why does she act that way?”
Callum paused, trying to find the right answer. “I think it's because she'll never have a child to call her own.”
Lucinda looked puzzled. “How do you know she won't have any children?”
“I just do, Lucinda. I just do.”
Lucinda fingered a lock of hair, pulling the same strands over and over. “Mother used to say your sister was jealous and mean, and that she was an old spinster who hurt little children.” She added quickly, “But that I should never tell you she said that.”
“Judith said that about Merce?”
“Yes...and other stuff too.” The words rushed forth as if she needed to purge them from her conscience. “She said Aunt Mercedes was crazy and selfish. When she got really sick, she told me if it wasn't for Aunt Mercedes, she would have had a different life and this wouldn't have happened to her. What did she mean by that, Daddy?”
Again Callum waited, but this time it was to prevent himself from starting his own tirade against his dead wife. “Lucinda, do you trust me?” he asked.
He could see that this was a tough question for her; he hadn't always been there when she needed him. Judith had been an authoritarian parent. She was not a mother to be trifled with, nor a wife, either. Both Callum and Lucinda had tried to do what was demanded of them for fear of her volatile temper. When Lucinda started to turn more often to Callum, Judith responded by busying the child with social engagements and the charitable causes of her society friends, excluding him wherever possible. As much as he loved Lucinda, it was often a relief to be out of his wife's way, a situation made unavoidable by the increasing demands made upon him at work by Judith's father. Whether the two were in cahoots to keep him occupied was a question he frequently asked himself.
“I think I do, Daddy,” she said finally. “More than anybody else, that's for sure.”
Callum felt as though his heart would break, so sad was he that his daughter could not believe in him completely.
She must have seen it on his face. Her thin arms clasped him around his neck. “Yes, I trust you. I do, honest.”
He hugged her tight, praying for the strength to make things right. “Then there's something I want to tell you, and I need for you to accept it and believe it even though I can't prove it. Can you do that?”
“Yes, I can do that,” she rushed to reassure him.
“There are two things. The first is that Judith was a very sick woman, and I don't just mean the headaches and the cancer. She was sick inside her mind too, and sometimes it made her do and say things that were wrong. Those things she said about Merce, they're not true, Lucinda. She hated Mercedes, but she hated lots of other things, too. That was part of her sickness.”
Lucinda sat very still. “What was the other thing?”
“Your aunt loves you and wants to help take care of you. She's not used to having a little girl in the house. We got to give her some time. All right?”
Lucinda's forehead creased in concentration. “I'll try, Daddy.”
Knowing he couldn't ask for more, Callum carried her to bed and tucked her in for the night. Shortly after, Mercedes came downstairs, her face drawn, her normally perfect bun dishevelled. She was barely twenty-six and already going grey.
“Ah, Mercie. How are you, girl?”
She waved away his concern. “Never mind me. How's our Lucinda?”
“She's so sorry for everything she said. It's been a rough year.”
“You don't have to explain.” Mercedes sat next to him. “Something she said keeps coming back to me, about how Judith warned her that I'd try to take her away.”
“She was crazy at the end, Merce. It's just us and Lucinda now. We can forget about Judith.”
She looked at him pityingly. “Callum, you know we can never do that. Judith meant every word, every threat. My God, she wouldn't even let me come to Sheilagh or Betty's funeral. I begged and I cried and it made no difference.” Mercedes stared out the window for several moments, then reached into her pocket. She placed a letter on the table and pushed it towards him. “It's from Judith's sister.”
Callum didn't pick it up. “Ruth? What did she want?”
“To warn us that she knows everything, and to watch what we said to Lucinda. She said if we ever cast a shadow on her sister's memory, she'll personally seek vengeance upon us all.” Mercedes opened the letter and read from it. “âI've got the time and the money, and we both know who would suffer most if that were to happen.'”
“But she's all the way in New York, she can't really hurt us.”
“Of course she can. Think about it. She's a spinster with nothing better to do than harbour her dead sister's grudges.”
“Read the letter. She's couldn't be more serious. If Ruth ever made public what she knows it could be the last straw for that little girl, and she's the only one who matters now. Imagine if she ever found out. What would that do to her after all she's been through?”
“But it's all so long ago, no one cares anymore.”
“Don't be naÃ¯ve. The biddies are already circling - just try buying groceries.” She pushed back the stray hairs. “No, I won't take chances. I'm just grateful to have you both here with me. We'll let the child get used to us, to the three of us together, and pray to the Lord above that it will all work out. You have to agree with me if this is going to work.”
“I mean it. One wrong word and this could all fall apart. For Lucinda's sake, we have to make sure what happened never sees the light of day.” Mercedes laid her hands flat on the table. “We say nothing. We do nothing. We leave the past in New York. This is the way it has to be.”
Callum knew then that it was useless to argue. The woman who confronted him across the table was one he'd seen often since his return to St. Jude, but this was the first time the strength of her will was directed at him. This woman went about her business of teaching and living in a grim, determined fashion, with no desire or patience for frivolity in any form.
And so, although it was not how he'd pictured their life together, he agreed. And even though they lived in the same house, Lucinda received similar treatment to the rest of her cousins, which was to say she was accorded respect and rewards in direct proportion to the degree in which she earned them. As promised, Mercedes provided a strict Catholic upbringing, and although she may have longed to give Lucinda more, she held herself in check, “for the good of the child,” she told Callum.
But Callum knew better. He knew that each night as Lucinda lay sleeping, his sister tiptoed across the wood floor of her bedroom. Mercedes would draw the covers up over the exposed neck, under the vulnerable chin. With silent intensity she would watch a minute longer. And then, if she felt absolutely certain that Lucinda was fully asleep, Mercedes would lean in and tenderly, carefully, kiss her good night.
The 1950's were good years for the citizens of St. Jude. They gained a High School and a Trade School, a fish plant, amotel and a boat builder. The town was booming. New peoplemoved in. More people had more money. Some could evenafford household help. Sadie Griffin had never liked schoolbut she'd always been good with a broom. It didn't take herlong to figure out that after cleaning someone's house, shecame away with a lot more than a few dollars and a bit of dirtunder her nails. Twenty bucks was twenty bucks. But a goodsecret? That was priceless.
Fat-arse Mabel. Don't know how she ever squeezed into this.
Sadie caressed the soft fabric of the yellow silk blouse, enjoying the way it slid so smoothly over her skin. At eighteen years of age, she'd never owned a new blouse, even though she'd been working since she'd left school at thirteen. Her mother's arthritis got worse every year and Sadie was the only one left to look after her. Sadie didn't mind working, especially for the priests. She'd been glad when they got rid of old Father Riley, though. She never did like the way he stood so close to her. His breath smelled bad, too, like rotten cod guts.
“This fish is some salty.” Edna Duffie, her mouth scrunched into a wrinkled pout of distaste, sniffed at the food on her plate. “How long did you soak it, girl?”
“Long enough. Cook it yourself next time.”
“I don't know how many times I got to tell you. You got to soakâ¦” Edna prattled on, unaware that her daughter had stopped listening.
That new priest now, he's a good one all right. I don't mind if he looks, no, not at all. He can look all he wants. Wouldn't mind a look myself. Have a gander behind that black frock of hisâ
“I said,” her mother's voice was raised, “that Callum got his-self a strange one.”
“What? Who?” Sadie chose an extra fine needle from the pincushion.
“Get your head out of the clouds, girl. I said Callum Hann, your cousin.”
Sadie glanced up. “What are you talking about, Ma? He got a strange what?”
Edna Duffie crossed her arms over her bony chest, causing the rounded hump on her back to protrude even further. “His girl, that Lucanda.”
“Oh, her. Yeah, strange all right. And her name's Lucinda.” The blouse had been part of a care package they'd gotten from relatives in St. John's. Mabel had worn it a few times even though it was far too small. It needed only a tuck in the back to hug Sadie's tiny waist. The bustline fit perfectly.
“That's what I said.” Edna picked at the fish and brewis in front of her.
“No, Ma, you said Lucanda, with an âa'. It's Lucinda, with an âi'.”
Mabel be some jealous she sees me in this. Lucky she didn't burst the seams out of it.
“Anyway, she's right queer, that one.”
“Not much to her.” Sadie pushed the needle carefully into the thin material.
“And she's some quiet, never says boo. Like she's scared of her own shadow. Although they says she's really just scared of Mercedes.”
“Can't blame her.”
Dermot'll be at the dance tonight. Maybe he'll walk me behind the church again.
“This hard tack's still hard,” her mother complained. “How long you say you soaked it? I don't thinkâ¦”
Sadie imagined Dermot's hands going around her waist, sliding up her back. She pictured him leaning in towards her, his body large and strong against hers, smelling of soap, his lips kissing hers, pressing hardâ
“Sadie!” Edna hit the plate with her fork.
Sadie's hand jerked. “Ow!” she yelled as the needle pricked her finger.
“Quit your dreaming, girl.” Edna put down her fork and rubbed one gnarled hand with the other. “Hard one to figure out, that Mercedes. Hear much about her?”
“Not a thing. Teaches school, goes to church, walks her dog.”
“You keep an ear out at Burke's. Not much gets past that Mona.”
Sadie looked doubtful. “I was there the other day and Mrs. Burke was trying to talk to her, saying how she must be glad to have Callum home, and did she like Nova Scotia when she was there, even asking about her father, you know, stuff like that, just trying to be nice to her. Mercedes was having none of it. Just got her groceries and left. Some closed up, I tell you.”
“Word is she had a boyfriend once.” Edna sounded quite pleased with herself.
“Get on! Her? Where'd you hear that?”
Can't imagine anyone kissing that crooked-arse.
“Aunt Agnes up in Green Harbour. Joe's dead wife, Betty I think her name was, she used to live next door to them before her and her sister run off to New York. Only the sister ever made it back, of course.”
Sadie stops sewing. “So the sister would have known the Hanns.”
Edna looks confused. “Up in Green Harbour?”
“No, when they were all in New York. If one sister was married to Joe the other one must've been around them all. She'd know what went on, what they got up to.”
“Probably did but we'll never know. Poor thing didn't last the winter when she got back.” Edna poked around on her plate until she came up with a small scrunchion. She popped the crispy pork rind into her mouth and sat back to enjoy it. “Tuberculosis they said it was.”
Another dead end. Some odd, no one knows nothing. I never saw the like.
“Anyway, this boyfriend. He from New York?”
“No, no,” said Edna. “That was up in Nova Scotia.”
“What happened?” Sadie rubbed the fine silk gently between her fingers.
“Don't know. Something about a doctor.” Edna scooped up a forkful of fish and bread all mushed together. “Yeah, that's it, I think they said a doctor.”
Sadie pulled the needle through. Her eyes narrowed. “Or she needed a doctor?”
Edna's hand stopped above the plate. “You think?”
“Sure, why not? That one's hiding something, I just knows it.”
“Too bad that young Lucanda got to live with her, though.”
“Lucinda, Ma. I told you, her name is Lucinda.”
No wonder Mabel's a dunce.
“No odds to me.” Edna picked a tiny bone from between her teeth.
“Or me. Don't plan on having nothing to do with Lucinda Hann.” Sadie paused from her sewing to check out the goings-on outside the window. From where she sat she had a clear view of the whole street.
“Never did like that crowd,” said her mother.
“Too stuck up, they are. Swear they were from the King of England.”
“That's a good one, what?” Edna chuckled. “Us or the king. Hah!”
“Nothing wrong with the Duffies, Ma. We're good as the Hanns any day.”
“Right you are, Sadie. Mary be alive today wasn't for that crackpot Farley.”
Sadie's eyes narrowed again. She stuck the needle back in.
Gerry yawns so widely it feels his lips might tear away from each other. Sadie's eyes have begun to droop as well. She doesn't resist when he suggests it's time for bed. Her steps are clumsy as he walks her to her room. Her little nips affect her faster and harder than when he'd first caught her sneaking them twenty years earlier. He's never said anything to her about it. He feels it would be an invasion of her privacy, of which she has so little, and also that perhaps she deserves some comfort, some form of escape, some small measure of a life outside St. Jude, even if it is only in her mind.
He kisses her goodnight and she hugs him tight. She holds him there longer than he would like, but he doesn't try to extricate himself. Finally she looks up into his eyes, smiles a little drunken smile and goes into her room. He shuts the door.
Grateful to be alone at last, Gerry crawls into the single bed he slept in as a boy. He cannot remember when he was ever so exhausted. Every limb and muscle feels weary right down to his fingers and toes. He waits for sleep, craving that blessed blackness to wash over him and sweep away his thoughts, his memories, his regrets. But his mind refuses to give up his ghosts. He opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling, its white backdrop the perfect canvas.
The image slips into place. Annie, her body outlined in the picture window. Annie, staring out into the night, into the black void. Annie. He closes his eyes.
Annie leans back against the kitchen counter, the hard edge digging into the curve of her spine. She is thinking about her mother and what Joe, in his anger, has accidentally revealed. Annie hadn't known that Lucinda was pregnant before she was married but, to her surprise, she finds that it doesn't really matter. In the past, she might have held such information close, saving it for a time when she needed something to harbour against her mother. She no longer feels that way and cannot remember why she did. At present, she feels only tenderness for Lucinda, a woman whom she loves without question, yet who remains a mystery.
Still, something doesn't sit right. “Hang on, you two,” she says. “Do you mean to tell me that Beth is illegitimate and that Mom and Dad have been celebrating their anniversary from the wrong year to cover it up?”
Callum and Joe, looking guilty, sit up straighter.
“Huh? What are you talking about?” Joe pushes his chair back, as if trying to escape the confines of the cold metal table legs along with Annie's questions.
“Oh, no you don't.” She plunks the sausage and bread on the table along with a pot of tea, then sits purposefully down across from them. “Look, we're all adults. I just want to know about my own mother, and the two of you need to fill me in because I can never get a darn thing out of her.”
Callum inclines his head and nods, but first he turns to Joe. “I'm sorry, Joey. The last thing I wants is to argue with you this night. Can we let it go?”
Joe's weathered hand pats his brother's even older one. “Indeed we should.”
“As for you, Miss Annie,” says her grandfather, “I don't suppose there's any harm in telling you about your own parents. Not that there's any great secret, but I knows how you and your mother are. Still, I figured you'd know some of this stuff by now.”
“Beth and Sara probably do, but me and Mom, we never did talk much.” She can hear the regret in her voice.
Callum touches her cheek briefly, then he begins. “Lucinda met Dermot when she was just sixteen. He was much older than her, a big strapping fisherman ten years on the boats. But Lucinda wasn't your typical teenager. She never had lost that shyness, or sadness, or whatever it was that she brought home with her from the States.” He pauses. “Joe, you remember what Judith was like, right?”
“I do. I could never figure how you ended up with her, the rich boss's daughter.”
“How did it happen, Granddad? You hardly ever talk about her.”
“With good reason.” Callum thinks for a minute. “One day I had to go to the main office, her father's office. I was nervous, he being the owner of the company and all. I was standing there getting up the nerve to knock when the door swings open and there she is, the most beautiful woman I ever saw, brown curls all around her face. It was her eyes that got me, though, so blue you could only think of the sky. And that day her eyes were all fired up. She was saying something, not really shouting but in this angry voice, I don't recall what it was about but when she saw me she stopped. I remember her looking me up and down. And then she smiled at me, a big wide smile that softened her face and made it glow. That smile was it for me. Then, when I come out from seeing her father, she was waiting for me.”
“Did you ask her out?” Annie says.
“I honestly don't remember.” Callum looks mystified.
“There's lots I don't remember from them months. I just recall being bowled over, and trying hard to be the man Judith wanted me to be. I didn't have much experience with girls.”
Joe laughs. “I never in my life saw a fellow so shy with the women.”
“Sure I never thought I'd have a girlfriend, let alone a wife.”
“Some wife.” Joe is no longer laughing. “Nothing but a mean, spoiled brat.”
Callum pats her hand. “He's right. Judith was spoiled like no one I ever knew, the apple of her father's eye. She had a sister but poor Ruth was as homely and dull as the day was long. Never married, never had a date as far as I knew. She idolized Judith, who could do no wrong as far as Ruth was concerned. Same went for their mother. So, when Judith fell for the help at her father's plant - that would be me - well, Judith always got what Judith wanted, and did what she wanted, no matter how mad her father was at her. I got caught hook, line and sinker. But it was just me, so no harm done.”
He takes several sips of tea, slowly, as if judging his words.
“When Lucinda came along, Judith had a new purpose, and her and her sister took it upon themselves to mould that little girl into a New York City princess.” His old eyes glisten. “Poor Lucinda. She tried to be what they wanted. She did everything they asked her to do, though it was clear from day one that it wasn't in her nature. They just barrelled on, ignoring what she was really like.” An angry glint flashes across his eyes. “And where was I in all this? Well, the truth is, I've no excuse good enough. Judith's father always begrudged me taking his daughter and he wasn't about to have no Newfie son-in-law hanging about without earning his keep. That man worked me to the bone, he did, all so I could legitimately pay for the life his daughter was used to. No freebies there, I tell you.
“So Lucinda had to make do as best she could, without me around to interfere or help her. And she did, and she survived. It wasn't until later that I wondered what she gave up to keep the peace.” His mouth tightens and his fist taps the table.
Annie resists the urge to comfort him. She knows he's not finished.
He exhales slowly. “After we moved here, I wondered if she felt cast off from the Macleans, but she never said nothing. Her Aunt Ruth phoned every year, on the date Judith passed away. She always called at our house, even after Lucinda was married and had a house of her own. Merce would take the phone while I ran and fetched Lucinda. I used to wonder what they talked about but Lucinda never said. Neither did Merce. Ruth died of a heart attack last year. We haven't heard from any of them since.
“Anyhow, Lucinda soldiered on. But my Lord, she was so thin and shy and quiet. She'd make your heart ache to look at her sometimes. When Dermot started calling on her, Merce and me were worried that he was so much older than her. But it was the darnedest thing. It struck the both of us in no time flat, and the two of them even earlier I suppose, that this was a match made in heaven. I'm ashamed to say I think it was the first time your mother felt really safe in her whole life.” He gives a wry chuckle. “I thought Sadie was going to kill her, mind you. She figured Derm was hers, you see, they'd been going around together a bit. But he was never serious about Sadie.
And when Lucinda got in the family way, eighteen or so she was, it didn't matter. Not even back then. It just seemed right natural and they got married. Merce gave them the land this house is on, not next to her place but not too far. Derm and me started building on it right away. It was the only other house on the road back then.”
Callum's hands rub across his face briefly before falling to the table. “But the baby died.”
Annie leans forward; his voice, normally strong despite his age, has gone hoarse.
“And the next one did too, and then she had a miscarriage really late. Me and Merce and Derm, we were some worried about her. That was a long hard haul for Lucinda. But it was Dermot got her through, kept her going. He wouldn't let her despair. Finally, along came Beth. Lucinda latched onto that child like her life depended on it, which it probably did. She was the happiest wife and mother, and she looked so healthy, finally had a bit of meat on her bones. I was scared to death something would happen to mess it up. But it was fine, especially with Sarah and yourself coming soon after, healthy as horses. Of course there was other tough times, other babies that never made it. And when Beth lost her first one some years back, Lucinda was awful sad. But like always, she had Derm and they had each other.” Callum sits back. “I thank God to this day that Dermot Bryne came into her life.”
They sit, the three of them, quietly, at peace with each other. The house hums with the shutdown noises of late night, the muted din of the furnace winding down, the stillness outside, the sighs of old men.
In the tranquility of the kitchen, Annie thinks about her parents, about the deep bond they share. She thinks about her mother and the babies she lost, about how she has kept her sorrow close so many years. Lucinda was never the type to revisit the hardships that life dealt her, nor was she a martyr determined to hoard her pain. Rather, she always said she saw no reason to dwell on hard times, that it made no sense to be making people sad for no good reason. Still, Annie knows her mother would have given anything to spare her daughters the grief that she has known.
For the first time, Annie feels a deep connection with Lucinda, even with Mercedes, a connection that surpasses blood ties yet exists solely because of them. She does not mind that it is probably loneliness that binds them. It makes her feel less alone.
“Annie, Annie!” Pat yells from the other room. “Get in here. Hurry!”
Annie rushes to the parlour, Joe and Callum right behind. The door is shut. When she tries to pull it open, she meets resistance. She pulls harder. It opens.
Annie stops. “For the love of God!”
The coffin is now in the middle of the room. Inside it, Mercedes is propped up with pillows. Her hand, which is tied to a rope attached to the doorknob, has risen with the opening of the door and is reaching out towards them.
Pat and Aiden stand by the coffin, swaying slightly, their faces proud, expectant.
“You're pissed to the gills, the pair of you.” She doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. “This is really gross. I hope you know that, you big idiots.”
Joe, not completely sober himself, peers nervously at Mercedes. Callum stands quietly by. He is not smiling.
Annie unties the rope from the doorknob then goes to the coffin and removes it from Mercedes' hand. The cold sallow skin sends shivers down her arms. She pushes the rope at Aiden. “Get rid of this right now.” She sniffs. The air reeks of incense and scotch. “What the hell did you do?”
Pat leans over the coffin. “Aid spilled it. I told him not to put it there.”
“St. Peter won't let her past the gate with that stench on her,” Aiden stammers. His speech is slow, some words delayed.
Pat drapes his arm over his brother's shoulder. “You trying to preserve her?”
Holding onto the coffin's railing for support they start to giggle, which soon erupts into hoots of laughter. Annie tries to quiet them but they're too drunk to care, or to notice the sound of footsteps running down the stairs. She grabs the rope from Aiden's hand and shoves it behind the couch.
Lucinda barges in, her flannel housecoat wafting around her. “Enough!” she yells, charging across the room.
Pat and Aiden immediately go silent.
Lucinda stops by the side of the coffin. Her mouth tightens when she sees the upended bottle lying next to Mercedes. She picks it up by the neck and holds it out towards Pat and Aiden as if she might hit them with it. They both take a step back.
“Have you no respect at all?” she says. “Do you even know the meaning of the word?”
The boys say nothing. They lean in closer to each other.
Lucinda nods. “Right. I didn't think so. Now look at this ungodly mess. Disgusting it is, absolutely disgusting.”
Pat tries to stammer out an apology but she thrusts her hand up. “I don't want your sorrys and your excuses. Just clean this up and quit acting like children for once in your frigging lives.” Hands on hips, she hones in on Pat. “I'm beginning to think she was right about you. All you had to do was sit up with her on her final night. But no, that was too much to ask. Well, the fun is over for you this night, do you hear me, Patrick Hann?” Not waiting for an answer she shifts her gaze to Aiden. “And you! It's high time you learned to take some responsibility, and not just about this. If you had one lick of decencyâ” She stops, bunching her lips together in frustration. “Ah, what's the use of talking to you? Just get your arse in gear and fix this, the both of you. I better not smell one whiff of that in the morning. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Aunt Luce,” they answer in unison.
“I'm going back to bed. And I don't want to hear another peep out of you two.”
The room is silent until they hear the hard clack of Lucinda's bedroom door.
“Which one of you wants to bathe her?” Annie asks with a perfectly straight face.
Pat pulls back. “Jesus, Annie, you're creeping the daylights out of me.”
“She's just kidding.” Aiden looks cautiously at Annie.
She gestures pointedly to the stained satin lining.
Pat's face is an odd shade of green. “I think I'm going to be sick.”
For his sake only, she decides to let them off the hook. “Ah, relax. It's not all that bad. From the looks of you two, you must have drank most of it first.”
Joe moves closer to inspect the damage. “What were you doing anyway?”
Aiden starts to titter. “We were giving her a little drinkie-pooh, but she wasn't too interested.”
“Not like she ever drank much,” Pat adds.
“Might have cheered her up a bit,” says Annie, although not with the same degree of bitterness she usually reserves for Mercedes.
The others nod. Except Callum, who turns to go back to the kitchen.
Annie sets Joe and the boys to work, then follows her grandfather out. He is slumped in a chair, his solemn face lost in thought, his gaze far away. She thinks again of Bay D'Esprits. It was the one place she felt she could never reach him. No matter how hard she looked upon that water, at the lonely cliffs on the other side and the hard jutting rocks rising from the Atlantic, she knew that she would never see what he did.
Annie hugs his rounded shoulders and brushes back his limp grey hair. “Sorry, Granddad. Sometimes I don't know when to shut up.”
“Oh love, I know she was a trial to put up with all these years. Mercedes long ago gave up trying to please anybody. She wasn't one for making friends.”
Annie sits next to him at the table. “I've been around her since the day I was born, but the woman I knew was nothing like the person you keep talking about.”
He gives her a mischievous smile, bringing a youthful happiness to his face. “Like I said since you were little, you always put me in mind of Mercie as a girl.”
“That's the second time today somebody said I was like her.”
“Your mother thought you were like her too, though I think it gave her more worry than pleasure,” he adds ruefully. “Guess who else saw it? Mercie. Every time you'd bring home top marks, she'd brag on about it, glowing with pride. Remember how you got straight A's your first semester of university?”
She nods, surprised that he does.
“When Mercie heard about that, she went on and on about how she knew you could do it, knew you could beat anybody in your class. Then she said outright that you reminded her of herself, but she was thankful you had better opportunities.”
“I don't get it. Why didn't she ever tell me those things? She acted like she couldn't stand me most of the time.”
“Couldn't stand you? Annie, she loved you. She only ever wanted for you to make something of yourself because she knew you could.”
“Well, she was no help. Wouldn't even lend me a few measly bucks for school.”
Callum looks smug. “She made sure you got the money, though.”
“She did not.”
“Whose idea was it for you to help me out at the computer, and who do you think insisted on giving me the money to pay you for it?”
Annie leans in, elbows on the table. “You're kidding?”
“She made sure you got what you needed, and it wasn't a loan.”
“If she really cared, what could be so wrong with telling a person?” She notices the tremble in her voice, but she doesn't mind it, not now, not here with her grandfather.
“Oh Annie, she forgot how, is all. She said it felt like every time she tried to help she made things worse. Merce was always so nervous for you, afraid something awful would happen and you'd end up like her.”
“You mean alone and angry?”
“She wasn't always that way. When she was young she was full of dreams. And she was brazen and saucy, much like yourself.” He smiles. “A right card, she was.”
“That's what's so amazing.” Annie's hits the table lightly with the side of her fist. “I hardly ever heard a funny word come out of her mouth. In all the years I knew her, she was always so serious, forever on the edge of bitterness.”
“It's the only way she knew how to be in the end, but that don't mean it's how she really was. A person can only suffer so much before they just let go and give in to it.”
Annie leans in close to her grandfather. “So tell me about it.”
“Merce was awful private. I don't knowâ¦”
“Please, Granddad. I need to know.”
He hesitates. “You do, don't you? You more than anyone else, just like Mercie said.” He studies her face for a moment, then takes a full long breath. “Something happened a long time ago, something awful. And Merce did what she had to do, and she survived. And when that was done, when she tried to put it behind her and start a new lifeâ¦” He stops and presses his fingers against his forehead. When he speaks again there are tears in his eyes. “She was after falling in love, you see, in Nova Scotia, where she was an English teacher. She met a young man there from St. John's, Louis Cunningham was his name. They decided to get married.” He stops again, and his knuckles rap the table in an angry rush. “But then Louis found something out, something he shouldn't have been told, a thing Merce could hardly believe herself.” He peers past her out the window. “Louis Cunningham was her last chance for a regular life and he took that away.” After a brief silence he looks back at Annie. “Mercedes suffered more than you can imagine, but she carried on the best she could. Life dealt her some of the cruellest cards and there wasn't one damn thing she could do about it.”
There is a raw honesty in his eyes, and his face is filled with torment. Annie longs to ask him to go on, to tell her more about this strange woman that only he knew so well. But it's as if he's no longer present in the room. His eyes seem distant, far away, and Annie can tell that he has drifted back to a time and place that he alone remembers. The only thing she can do to help him is to leave him be, for now at least, to let him rest there with the little sister he loved from the beginning of her life until the sad, lonely end.
Sadie is in a dream. It is not a good dream. She is wearing her favourite blouse, but the silky yellow material is ripped across the front, exposing part of her old, greying brassiere. Lucinda is there. She is holding Dermot's hand. But then Dermot becomes Angus and he is watching Lucinda and Dermot walk away.
The dream shifts so that it no longer feels like a dream. It is happening now. Mercedes Hann stands at her bedside. Sadie knows she is there, somehow she can see her, even though she can't open her eyes. She tries to make her eyelids go up, concentrates as hard as she can, but they're stuck shut.
Mercedes is saying something, talking to somebody. Sadie can't quite make out the words but she can hear the voices. Then a young man rises up to stand beside Mercedes. He puts his hand on her shoulder. There is a smile in his voice as he speaks to her. “Yes, she's dead all right. Dead, dead, dead.” He laughs.
Sadie needs to get her eyes open. Her brain pulls at the muscles in her face, hauling and tugging so hard that she loses sight of the two of them. Nothing. No one.
She stops straining. They are there again, but only the back of them walking away. Mercedes Hann and Gerard. On they go, farther and farther, but still she can see them. They keep moving beyond, but never so far as to disappear altogether.
With one final wrench, she opens her eyes. Wide. She stares at the side of the bed. No one. Her heart bounces against her flesh so hard she is afraid it will break through. She takes several long breaths. Keeping her sights on the air beside her, she waits patiently for her heart to settle back into its place inside her chest.
She doesn't blink for a long time.
Goddamn Old Hag. Goddamn Mercedes Hann.