The Letter by R.M. Clarke

The man in the other car had been a priest. The word was he’d taken a drink before he got behind the wheel and the investigation after proved the word to be true. But it was the cigarette that had caused him to swerve. He’d thrown it out the window once it dragged but the wind had pushed it back. Then the cigarette took on the habit, set fire to it at the lap. It was then he had drifted across the line and into my father’s car headlong and pushed him off the mountain road.

It was decided after a time that it was less the fault of the man himself than it was simple bad luck, or that it had been decided in some way. A small chain of events – the drink, the car, the cigarette, the gust of wind, the fire – led to the thing itself: the two cars colliding, my father’s coming off worse, the road high and without boundary, the fall steep and far. It was never said out loud but it was heard and known all the same; it became common thought that the priest’s life had been spared and our father’s life taken by the hand of God.

Here now, far and long away from there and then, the sun is coming up and the heat is already rising from the hard earth. Soon the blue sky will glare down at me. It is nothing like the wet green bearing in of home. I pause above the page, now taken up a quarter with the black scrawls of my hand, waiting for the next words to come. I know I am out of date with this form. I could as easily write a text, send an email. But this seems right, this pen and ink. I have long been out of time with you. I’ve not talked to you for years, years you’ve not been able to chip away at the silence I’ve built up between us with distance. And yet here we are.

The spasm catches me across the chest and I am shocked into stillness. I have known these often now but each time it takes my breath. I wonder when the end comes if it will go like that, the seizing striking out of nowhere and then the darkness.

Anyway. Pen to the page.

I was seven, then. You were twelve. Every Saturday my father and I used to head out to the football ground. He was a soccer player by trade, do you remember that? You must. A midfielder for the Dublin Wanderers. It didn’t fit him afterwards, somehow. Dying young in that position didn’t seem right, that sort of fast burning out was usually reserved for a striker. But it happened all the same. He died just as easily and impossibly as anyone else. There and then not there, the cruel and simple and true of it.

I used wait for Saturday mornings with a giddy joy, laying out my clean kit the night before to mirror his so I could jump into it in the morning and be down at the breakfast table before him, waiting for his words to come booming down the staircase:

Oh it’s a fine old day to be a Wan-Der-ER!

And when he came into the kitchen, with the breakfast things already laid out by Mam, he’d pause by the door and look at me, his eyes glinting.

What kind of day is it today, Frankie?

it’s a fine old day to be a wan-der-er!

Never a truer word spoken my lad.

And then he’d lay into the toast and eggs Mam had made him with a savagery and she would pour the tea and sit at last and spoon out big gel blobs of marmalade onto her own toast and mine while you and Jamzie slept. She used to watch his games, had met him at a game there when he was on the juniors, but now there were five of us including us three children and there were always things to do. I was the family rep, week in week out I was there beside him in the car as we drove over the mountains from Rathfarnham, watching the city spill out before us and the buildings cluster ever tighter together as we reached the field, there beside him on the pitch in the team box, roaring with the rest of them. The team used to call me Frankie the Manager. Da loved that. You and Jamzie never came. You were twelve then and he was fourteen and you had things to do, like Mam, schoolwork to finish and your friends to walk to the shops with and Jamzie had girls to look after and places to go on his bike. So it was just me and Da on Saturdays.

I called him Da when I was young. It was only afterwards, maybe years after – when I no longer retraced the Saturday car journey over the mountains in my mind – that he became my father. I had known him all my life when he died, until my years of living long eclipsed the time we’d shared. And then he was as unknown as a stranger, and as bizarre and remote and formal. Then he was my father. I knew you much longer.

I had fallen ill after the game the week before, and the fever rose in me suddenly and severely. The rain had fallen without relent on the pitch, had been falling all morning, and though Mam had tried to keep me in the house I had refused. The next day I couldn’t move and was left off school all week, groaning into myself as that Saturday came ever closer. Game day. I had never missed one.

The night before I willed myself into wellness. I don’t think you knew how hard I did as you sat with me, bent over your schoolwork, rising from it now and then to put a hand to my cheek and urge the broth to my mouth while dinner was being cooked downstairs. I didn’t want to be stuck there the next day while Da did his drive over the mountains without me, while he fought on the pitch for ninety minutes without me roaring him on, or started the car up without me on the way home, stopping in for ice cream if it was a hot day, penny sweets if it was a cold. The sheets clung to my hot limbs, and I had stern words with them in his voice to cool down, to dry up, to become light and mobile, to be better by morning. When darkness came and I rose briefly out of a thick sleep, you and your books had left but I could hear you through the wall that separated your room from mine, your feet doing a soft shoe on the wooden boards, the low hum of the radio and your voice. The darkness fell over me then and I saw the faces of angels at the windows. I saw the captain of the Dublin Wanderers, the centre-forward Timmy Murphy, who had legs like lightning bolts and was my hero; I saw my father’s laughing mouth of teeth; I saw you. You were reaching out to me with your hand, as though asking me to dance. All of you were calling to me as though your voices were strings attached to my chest and pulling me onwards to you. The sleep that came then was deep and fitful and in the morning I was cold and heavy as sand.

His stomping chant woke me, echoing up through the floorboards and creeping into my sleep like a long forgotten thing suddenly remembered.

It’s a fine old day to be a WAN-DER-ER!

And when the kitchen echoed in silence the noise of him reversed and the booming of his steps came back up the stairs and burst into my bedroom.

Against the window the raindrops made a series of rapid rippling pools, swinging me forcibly from a lying down position to the twisted depth of a sediment bed beneath a body of clear water. I sunk down as he spoke, each pooling drop further and further above the closing darkness. I fought to wake for him and when I finally did he was gone. Whatever his words were that he had spoken to me last had gone with him.

Mam swung through the door after a time and laid her hard cold hand on my forehead where last yours had been and whispered about getting the shopping and went. Then the house settled. It, like the rest of us, did not know what was to come. Sleep fell on me again until I heard you.

It wasn’t your voice at first. It was your feet, scuffling along the wood of the room next door, the big room you had to yourself as the only girl, the room Jamzie coveted and fought you over. At first, through the heavy state I was under, I thought you might have been dancing. Then I heard your voice.

No.

There was a laugh in it, but the laugh sat atop a deeper pull, like a blob of oil on a body of water. The laugh was not your own. Then there was silence, and then you said it again, and then the floorboards creaked under weight and then I heard Jamzie.

You did it the last time and you liked it.

I did not know what he meant then but it was the way the words were said.

The scuffling started up again, violent and subdued and then it ceased, and I heard the sheets being worried, the springs of the bed being put under oath. And that word again. No. Over and again, so gentle as to almost not be heard, like a prayer learned by rote but never understood.

Silence came again, and I found that the sheets clung to me in every crevice and that my face was hot and wet and sore from where my jaw had been held shut. My ears were so locked on the movement through the wall that I did not hear the bedroom door, did not see Jamzie standing there watching me. When I turned and saw him a shudder came over me and he smiled.

Feeling better now Frankie?

I stared at him, but could not move my head and he looked me full in the face with eyes that were empty of knowing. And it might have been something else I thought then, a misunderstanding, something that I could never know. Perhaps you and Jamzie, who were so much older and schooled and busy with your lives and friends outside of home and knew things that I could not, inhabited a place where words had different meanings, where they were not meant fully or the same. They might be given with a laugh that was believed even though it seemed false, or was only incidental, or their repetitions might be like a song to be sung along to because it has been heard so often it rises from you without effort. Perhaps this place was where a series of small and blameless events would latch on to one another and lead, without intention, to the thing itself, the thing it was that brought a word from you that was at once incontestable and meaningless, and I could not understand that and no one could be held responsible. And after all I was sick.

Jamzie watched me and his empty eyes filled up at last with something like satisfaction, like understanding.

I’ll bring you up a thing to drink, you look bothered.

He kept his eyes on me as he pulled the door over. At last it closed on him and the room next door held its breath. And it was like when you look at the wood of the wardrobe doors and see a face where before it was just the lifeless incidentals of the woodgrain, you can never after unsee that face, you can never after unknow that the wardrobe lives. And every time your eyes were downcast or your shoulders rounded I wondered if it had happened again. The thing that drew that no. And though for years I did not know what that thing was I came to know in time, when words like Da got elbowed out of my mouth by Father, and made space for things I had never before understood. And every time Jamzie brushed past you in the kitchen and you went still and every time he looked at me full in the face with empty eyes I knew I would die if I ever found the words for a thing I couldn’t speak. And that same afternoon when everything changed for all of us in the same levelling way, when the phone rang at tea and Mam came into the kitchen as though her entire body had been drawn of blood and we all had to sit and accept the simple chain of events that led to the thing itself, what space did that leave any of us in which to speak and be heard?

The other driver – whose fault it wasn’t at all, an accident after all just an accident and accidents happen – the priest, insisted on leading the ceremony for us and Mam couldn’t say no, or if she had said it, he hadn’t heard. When he stood at the bow of the church before us, his loose neck wobbled every time he said our father’s name. Jonathan. It was the way he held the final ‘n’ at the back of his throat long after his mouth had stopped working. The sound lingered and insinuated itself into the echoes and lasted. You sat on my right side and were so still it seemed you held your breath. Jonathann. And his throat skin was like an old shirt left on the line in the wet. And Jamzie was on my left and though he didn’t move or speak I could feel him stretching out over me towards you like a shadow. Jonathannn. Our mother had always called him Jonny. In the Wanderers he was Jonny Gorman the Number 4 Man. Timmy Murphy, my hero of the lightning legs, had called him Johnboy. I knew him as Da. There was no Jonathan except in the church suffocated in the throat of that priest.

At the end of the ceremony he came straight over to us to take our hands in his in turn and to hold at last to our mother’s.

It’s been a horrible confusion of events, he said.

After, our aunt Margaret passed a plate of sandwiches to my mother in the kitchen and said:

It could have been worse, Celeste. He could have knocked the priest off the road himself.

I saw my mother’s face then as I had never seen it before. It was a look that hardened itself into the ridges and deeps of her cheeks, and around her mouth and nose. A pulling down and sharpening. That face, the one I didn’t know, stayed with her through the next years of work and the worrying you into the housework and the cooking, the time when you gave up on all the things you did and dreamed, your youth, your time with friends, your schooling. It stayed with her and hardened her sight against all things, against what you needed her to see, against what she saw herself. And I’m talking about Jamzie, you know that. Jamzie and how he was and who he was and how he moved around you. How he would brush past you in the kitchen, bend over you too close when you were making tea or filling a glass at the sink. The way his eyes followed your hips. It stayed with her through all of that until she found her way into our father’s plot five years later.

The spasm catches me across the chest again and I hold myself still until it breathes through. They come so often now I wonder if I imagine them. I don’t know why I am writing these things down, stories I have told and stories I have never spoken, but there is something in this that is necessary, now. Because it has lain still and unbreathing beneath many layers of dirt and water, beneath many stagnant breaths.And though I knew it was there after that day I never again looked for a face in the wood grain. In the silence of the night I slept with my head under the pillow and breathed loud through my mouth and turned obnoxiously and sometimes I hummed until my ears were filled and it felt again that I was under water where nothing could touch me or anyone else.

Because the thing was, you loved us. All of us. But you loved me most, and I couldn’t have that change. And after our father died and Mam had to take on work, you did all that was asked of you and you turned it at last into an art. You grew in love when there seemed nothing left worth loving in any of us. On Sundays you boiled a great pink ham for the week and I used watch it steam on the side as it cooled, my mouth aching for it. You made our sandwiches for the next day in order of age and kept mine for last. I sat with you and watched while Mam and Jamzie watched the telly next door, and we were left to our softness and our quiet. You kept the best bits back for my sandwich and buttered both slices of bread on the inside, and only we knew. You did the mustard lightly all over the ham so that it touched every surface of the meat without piling up too much in one place, because it was the piling up that caused the sting. You slapped it thick on Jamzie’s in great lumps and we both smiled while you did it though neither of us said why. I cried and cried when you finally got out and left us and married Brian.

 

Manuela from next door is out already, sweeping. Over here, they keep their places spotless. Each few square metres of path is claimed and kept, swept each morning without fail or regret. The sound grates and soothes at once, like nails against skin on fire with itching. She drags the brush, today as every day, to the corner of the path above the gutter and raps out the head with three short sharp strikes, loosening the stale dirt through the grates. She looks over at me where I sit above these few pages watching her stiffly as though caught in a wrongdoing.

She calls brightly up to me.

Hola señor! Te sientes mejor?

Si, un poco.

I smile so easily through the untruth and bend again over this page. I hear her heavy steps move back indoors. It was always so easy to conserve, to play small, to hold back. We learned it young. Carol says it’s my way of punishing myself. She has been taking care of everything these past few months, the doctors, the paperwork that goes with being an expat in a hard-earthed land you’ve never once learned to navigate with ease. She has made herself indispensable.

The sun is rising to its fullness and the heat is beating off the earth and blinding me. The coffee in my cup has gone lukewarm and bitter. I can hear Carol behind me now, up and moving about inside with another pot, with breakfast.

I won’t wait for her this morning. I will fold these pages in two, slip them inside the sleeve of the envelope addressed to you. Then I will walk past Manuela’s down to the end of the alley where the earth dissolves into sand and sinks the last few metres to the water. Along the shore the sea grass will lie piled and stretched having washed in during the night, slashing dark and ugly the soft white sand. Upon the water I will lay this letter, watch the water take it into its hold and suck it under, watch the ink spread across the white face. Your name, Kate, will splinter into many long ribbons, the paper that holds it together becoming heavy and thin and sheer. I will watch it break apart. Then I will sit at the edge where the sand is damp and watch the tide carry you away to a shore where someone else watches back and waits for something to strike out of nothing, as though guided by an unseen hand.

 

This story is published in The Broken Spiral, also available at Take Heart Pop Up Art, all proceeds to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. R.M. Clarke began her career as an actress in 2006, moving behind the scenes into voiceover work and writing some years later. Her stories have been published in Losslit, The Open Pen Anthology and Dublin 2020. Her debut novel, The Glass Door, won the ‘Discovery’ award at the Dalkey Book Festival and The Irish Writers Centre Greenbean Novel Fair 2016. She is editor of The Broken Spiral.

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