I drive up the avenue and the trees dip low over the car, conjuring my childhood; I’m glad to see them so full and free. I glimpse the serried clutter of black crosses in the field beyond the hedge – the simple graves belonging to the convent next door. The nuns’ plot was my playground as a girl but I would dash, wary, back to our orchard if I glimpsed a grey habit. Young Sister Consolata, though, often managed to waylay me; she was tiny and fresh, not at all like the other nuns. She liked to plait my hair and tell me things and, sometimes, I let her.
Daddy always said our apples were blessed because the order lived beside us. He liked to gift crates of Egremont Russets, the sweetest of all his fruit, to the sisters; we always called Egremonts ‘nun apples’ at home. The orchard shut down after he died and, though my mother can’t quite believe she has no money anymore, she doesn’t care much either. Her family set up my parents with the house and its land before they married and Daddy made a good go of the business. But, when he was gone, it was all too much for Mam and the place deteriorated until she was forced to close.
I park the car by the front of the house and turn to Matthew. ‘This is it,’ I say.
He leans across me to look through the windscreen. ‘It’s fucking huge.’
I look at the lofty Queen Anne-ish facade rising up over three floors. ‘It is, I suppose.’
We go around the back, the front door being for high days only, which Good Friday, in our family, is not. Mam is slumped in an ancient deck chair in the yard and she looks undone. She sits, hand adangle above a mug of homemade cider, as if some mighty bird is about to swoop down and whisk it up into the clouds. She has probably sat here all day.
Squinting up at me with one languid eye, the other closed, she says, ‘I hope, Helen, you’re not expecting tea. There’s nothing reasonable to eat in the house.’
‘Did Patsy not get your messages?’ I ask.
She flaps her hand. ‘Sure, she’s useless.’
‘Mam,’ I say, ‘this is Matthew.’ He steps forward to be inspected, and my mother offers only a salute; the uncharacteristic spring heat seems to do away with her need for words. ‘And this is Verona, my mother.’
‘It’s lovely to meet you, Verona.’ Mam sips her cider and nods, her disinterest interesting to me because I’ve been harassed in the past about boyfriends, my mother snuffling after me like a resolute badger, wanting to meet them. ‘We brought oysters,’ Matthew says, after a silence that we all feel.
‘Of course you did,’ Mam says. ‘Have a sup of cider, Matthew, I made it myself. Helen, get glasses.’
I go through the boot room to the kitchen and, not finding any glassware in the press, I pluck two cups from the draining board; they are, of course, hennaed with tannin but I hope Matthew won’t mind. The kitchen has its familiar rotten-onion, stale-biscuit smell and I wonder about bringing Matthew into the house, about what he’ll make of its chaos of bric-a-brac and sail-like cobwebs, its peculiar air. I come out the back door to the yard and stand to watch the sun drift west. I go to the old sink, heave my mother’s demijohn of cider out of its water bath, and pour.
‘I made a simnel cake,’ my mother says.
‘Did you?’ I say, surprised by this unusual marking of the occasion.
‘And I fired Patsy.’
‘Ah, Mam, not again. How will you manage?’
‘I’m alive, amn’t I?’ She leans over and knocks her mug against Matthew’s. ‘Sláinte agus táinte, young Matthew. I hope you’re ready for this one.’ She nods at me.
‘I am,’ Matthew says. ‘Ready etcetera.’
He grins and I’m grateful for his contained ease. I’ve been uptight about this visit, worried that by meeting Mam, and being in the house, he’ll see into me in a way I won’t welcome. Matthew is perched on the back step and I sit beside him. My mother whistles a line of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and looks off into the sunset like a pilgrim contemplating a promised land. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool loner and I know me and Matthew being here may be hard on her – the having to converse, the need for civility. My mother is unused to the company of outsiders and doesn’t welcome it.
‘Yep, just me and the house now,’ she says, as if catching my thoughts.
‘So, Patsy’s gone again. What did she try to appropriate this time?’ I ask.
‘The portrait of your father. Not the ugly one.’
I tut. ‘You should’ve let her have it.’
‘I did. But I got rid of her, too.’
‘She’ll be back, I suppose.’
Mam shrugs and grins. She has taken to her role as singleton, as unsentimental widow, with an inert joy; she seems determined to live her life now in unfettered nonchalance. Patsy had always acted as a lopsided buffer between my parents. Their marriage didn’t age well, there was a certain disgust for each other in all actions towards the end. Patsy’s loyalty to my father was fierce, but it was my mother she was left with. Daddy was one of those men who embraced the arrogance of his generation, he was never afraid to use a domineering charisma in order to get his way. He cajoled Patsy like a snake charmer and she sucked it up. Despite his overbearance, despite his lumpen shape, women always liked Daddy. He begrudged the young – me – their very youth, as he got older. Women of his own generation, like Patsy, were his preferred companions because they knew how to acquiesce. My mother, being contrary, didn’t see fit to kow-tow to him. I look at her now and it’s clear to me that she has thrown off Daddy like a shackle, that without him – and without Patsy too – she has found a way to be somewhat content. Well, she is a woman who thrives alone so perhaps she is better off.
The cider is flat, but cool and welcome slipping down my throat. The heat that radiates from Matthew’s body, beside me on the step, brings back our morning in my bed: the slick, fierce weight of him on top of me, the sweet length of him inside me, his soft grunts and smiles. I quiver and gooseflesh stipples my arms, despite the heat that drapes the yard.
My father would have baulked at our inertia, even today; though he was basted in religion, he didn’t approve of holy days. His annoyance at perceived laziness could be spectacular at times and I spent my young life on edge, ready to ward off his distress if he found me idle when the orchard was busy. Every season had its chores and Daddy meant to see we all took part in them, the better to produce the sweetest fruit in County Dublin.
My mother sips her cider and belches quietly between each draught. ‘The nun apples are even sweeter since your father died,’ she says.
‘You might be right,’ I answer; she has overheard my thoughts again it seems.
‘Amn’t I always right?’ she murmurs.
The sun’s heat sends my mind adrift. I gaze across the yard and wonder if the ferocity of new love can ever last. If Matthew and I stay together, will I always want to coil up on his chest after sex? In five years, say, will I still relish the scatter of hair in the small of his back that I stroke like a pet while he sleeps? And will he hold me all night, pursuing me across the sheets when I try to ease away? I take Matthew’s hand in mine and kiss each knuckle in turn; he smiles and pucks me gently with his side.
‘Will we have supper now?’ I ask.
‘Supper, no less,’ Matthew says, and he and my mother laugh conspiratorially, as if at some marvellous joke.
‘Her father’s word,’ Mam says, ‘supper. That man always had a great idea of himself.’
‘You miss him,’ I say, and she snorts a denial. But she does miss Daddy, in her own way, despite everything. He’s too often mentioned, too frequently summoned like a wisp of necessary air. She may be having a harder time than she lets on letting go of him.
I get up and go through the house to the car, pull the icebox from the boot and haul it to the kitchen. I scrub the oysters in the sink and arrange them on a platter. They look elemental against the blue china, their fluted shells like pastry made of shale. My mouth drips in anticipation of the plump, briny meat. I put tea lights in saucers along the table, cut lemons into wedges, and butter some brown bread.
‘Mam! Matthew!’ I roar from my place at the counter. Then, mindful of Matthew, I remember that not all families communicate by shouting and go to the back door. ‘The food is ready,’ I say, polite as a maid.
Mam tries to rock herself out of the deck chair on a series of swings. She snarls at the effort and flops back. Matthew stands and my mother holds up her hands to him. With a familiarity that tickles me, he heaves her from the chair, grunting histrionically all the while, which makes her laugh.
‘Madame Verona,’ he says, and offers her his arm to escort her inside.
‘Master Matthew,’ she replies and takes it.
The kitchen is cool after the heat of the yard but the candle flames and lofty ceiling make a welcome theatre of the room. They take their places and I nip back outside for the demijohn and mugs. I stand to watch shadows gather over the graveyard and get an urge to go and walk the land around the plots. When I was alone there as a child, the crosses made climbing frames for my dolls and oak leaves their beds. The giant yew in the corner was my den and I sat on a rock under the protection of its low branches, savouring the dank tranquillity it offered. I was a quiet child, silent often, and this was taken for belligerence, by my father, by Patsy. Mam left me be. I always loved the graveyard’s peace as much as the rumble of disquiet I sensed from the women interred under the soil. I talked to them, wandering from cross to cross, to lie on the grass above where they lay, my face to the sky.
‘What’s your name and what did you die of?’ I asked, and I fully fancied that I received answers.
Sister Bartholomew: ‘Throat cancer.’
Sister Consolata: ‘A broken heart.’
Sister Rosario Maria: ‘Old age.’
Consolata was placid, an undemanding companion. She didn’t talk much but she always admired my dolls and taught me little things about nature. It was she who explained periods to me when she found me on my rock examining a brackish stain on the crotch of my knickers. I had thought I was dying. She seemed old to me, unsexed by the veil, but she was younger than the other nuns in spirit, as much as in age. I wasn’t frightened of her as I was of them.
I look out over the graveyard and wave my hand at the crosses, resolving to visit the dead sisters in the morning.
‘Helen!’ Mam’s shout comes loud into the yard. ‘Hell! My stomach is stuck to my back with the hunger. Get in here!’
I go back in, top up our cider cups, and sit. Matthew is relaxed, loading his plate as solemnly as a priest at his rituals; he looks at home and that pleases me. I shuck my first oyster and the pop when I turn the knife under the top-shell makes me shudder.
‘Aaaah,’ I say.
I cut the muscle and raise the shell, being careful not to spill the salty juice, and offer a hasty ‘Bon appétit’ to the others. Mam is readying her shucking tool and Matthew is crushing a lemon wedge. I turn the shell-lip to my lips, slide the oyster into my mouth and massage it briefly with my teeth; I savour its brawny goodness in my throat and the dance of sea salt on my tongue.
‘Mmmm,’ I sigh, and set to work on another.
Matthew cuts his from the shell and lifts it to his mouth with a fork.
‘Why so dainty?’ I ask.
He shrugs and pops the meat onto his tongue, but he slurps the next one straight from the shell. When we’ve had six each, Matthew retrieves the rest of the oysters we brought from the ice-box and we eat on. At the end of those, Mam emits a bountiful burp and lays her two hands across her stomach.
‘That was an absolute feast,’ she says. ‘Wonderful. The last supper, a day late.’ She chuckles. ‘Ah, supper. Yes.’
I sip the cold, grassy cider, look at Matthew and Mam, and feel content. ‘This is the calm way this house should be occupied,’ I say.
‘A quiet life is good for the bones. For the soul. Whatever that might be.’ My mother raises her mug to Matthew and me.
Scarfs of mist hang over the graveyard and I wish I’d brought my phone for pictures to show to Matthew, who is still asleep in my old bedroom. He would like the gothic look of the wraiths that will soon evaporate to leave a corpulent dew on the grass that will take hours to dry out. The ecology of this place is sewn into me and I know how every season affects it: the stark of winter, this springy soak-and-grow, summer’s glorious greens, autumnal mulch. I stand and survey the grounds, the vapoury mist, the crosses, the trees, and I’m lachrymosely grateful that the whole lot hasn’t been lost under a housing estate.
I rub my head and groan. My tongue is tart-sweet and my eye sockets are taut, pulled down towards my stomach which rises to meet the tension in my forehead on a horrible comingle of cider and oysters. We had continued to drink into the early hours and I slept little. I woke Matthew when dawn fingered its way into my room, wanting to make love, but he could only keep his eyes open for a moment so I rolled away and got up, the bed groaning as if disinclined to let me go.
Now I make my way through the black crosses to the yew tree; it looks, at once, larger and smaller than it did when I made it my den. I slip under its umbrella of branches and see that my rock is still there. Until the autumn I turned twelve that rock acted as chair and table and thinking-spot. And also as a prop for young Sister Consolata, the better for my father to fuck her.
I had been sent to look for Daddy in the orchard; there was something jammed in the apple scratter. Mam, worried it was a mouse that would cause contamination, had to stop pulping apples, and she sent me down among the trees to shout for my father, the only one with the knack to clear the scratter’s innards. I wandered, kicking at boggy windfalls to see their brown bruises split. Every so often I would remember my mission and call out ‘Daddy! Dad! Dada!’ but I kept my voice low, preferring to eke out the moments that I was free from the endless pressing of apples. I looked in a lacklustre way for my father’s outline among the trees but, not being able to see him, I slipped instead into the graveyard to confer with the dead. I wove through the crosses, touching their tips to greet the dead sisters below.
‘Good day, Sister Bartholomew. Hello to you, Sister Rosario Maria.’
I headed to the yew tree to retrieve a book left there the day before. As I approached I heard a moist slap-slap and the same brutish groans that sometimes emanated from my parents’ bedroom. I bent over to make myself small and didn’t lift the branch canopy but dipped under it to lie on the ground. I didn’t realise at first that it was Consolata – her head was bare – all I saw was a person with straw coloured hair, like my own but cropped, draped backwards over my rock. My father was on top, pushing rhythmically and grunting. His balled fists held him up, and the fair head bounced and incanted, and Daddy leaned down on each thrust and kissed the face below him. Then the head bent further back and I saw who it was, saw the lips that said my hair was pretty as she combed it, the same mouth that told me the yew tree was toxic and to be careful under its cover.
‘The yew’s name, taxus baccata, means “toxic berry”,’ Consolata had said. ‘And, Helen, you must never eat its berries, bright and soft though they are.’
I watched Sister Consolata’s eyes open and they were glossy and large. My father continued his lunging movements and I whimpered when I realised it was my friend beneath him. I was drawn to Consolata by her silence and yet here she was, invoking God, shout-whispering my father’s name, whining like a feral cat. Never had I heard such odd noises from her before and I didn’t like it at all. My father’s hands moved under her habit and he licked and bit at her neck in great consuming lunges. The sister’s breath came in delighted gasps until she focussed on me, then she bucked her head upwards and twisted her body in my direction.
I jumped from the ground, shouted, ‘Taxus baccata! Taxus baccata!’ and dashed back to the gap in the hedge to our orchard. I ran up through the trees towards the house and straight into the arms of Patsy who had been sent to look for my father and me.
‘Whoa, Helen, whoa!’ she roared and grabbed me to her. I was panting and outraged. How could Sister Consolata want to be better friends with my father than with me? Why would she let him put his tongue on her neck like that and kiss her? What possessed her to let him grind at her like an animal in heat? Patsy gripped my shoulders and held me away from her. ‘What bee is in your bonnet, missy?’
‘Daddy has Sister Consolata on my rock under the yew,’ I said, ‘and they’re humping like two auld dogs!’
Patsy slapped my cheek hard then pulled me to her breast. She hugged me close and dropped her mouth to my ear. ‘God will strike you dead if you ever say that again. Don’t dare repeat it. To anyone. Do you hear me?’
I nodded and she pushed me away from her and set off down the orchard calling my father’s name. I ran to the barn, bubbling with shame and rage. My mother was poking a broom handle into the scratter.
‘Helen! Hell! Where did you get to?’
‘Did you find him?’ I shook my head. ‘Christ on a fucking bike, give me patience,’ she said, and pulled the broom handle out and threw it to the floor.
Daddy and Patsy appeared in the barn doorway, both out of breath, both pantomiming calm.
‘What is it, Verona?’ Daddy said, walking forward to Mam. His glance didn’t meet mine but the hum of his guilt flew into the barn with him and settled in the rafters above all our heads.
‘That yoke,’ Mam said, pointing at the scratter. ‘I’m fit to take the hammer to it at this stage.’
‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Daddy said, and went to the shelf for his toolbox.
Patsy looked at me and mouthed a ‘No’. I eyed her and swallowed the words that scrambled in my gut, itching to be said.
Mam came over to me. ‘What’ve you been up to, Hell? You look half mad.’ She laughed and knocked muck off my knees with one palm.
‘She was below in the orchard, missus,’ Patsy said, ‘idle as a cat.’
‘As long as you weren’t beyond the hedge, nun-bothering,’ Mam said, pulling me to her side by my shoulder.
I looked from my father to Patsy. ‘I wasn’t bothering anyone,’ I said.
We sit out in the yard again after a lunch of cheese and tomatoes and we cut Mam’s simnel cake, its top a blaze of marzipan, dotted with sugar-shelled eggs.
‘It’s not like you to bake. To make a fuss about Easter.’
‘With Patsy out from under my feet I can get up to all sorts,’ she says.
She stands over Matthew and me and examines us.
‘You look right together,’ she says. ‘Bless your youth. Bless your future.’ She holds her mug and plate aloft like offerings. ‘Eat this cake and drink this cider.’
So we do. And we sit, the three of us, and we talk about those who are buried and those who are yet to be born, and so much more besides. And while we talk I think about my father, about what his life meant and his death and whether I will see him again in some dimension I don’t yet understand, and if he’ll explain himself to me. We sit on, us three, and we drink, talk and think until the April sun drops behind the orchard and is gone.
‘Consolata’ is taken from Nuala O’Connor’s new collection of stories, Joyride to Jupiter; available from New Island Books.
Image © Garrett Coakley