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Authors: Lia Mills

Fallen (7 page)

BOOK: Fallen
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Liam would say no good ever came of blame. The national curse, he called it. Always the pointing finger, the excuse. He'd rather find solutions. It went against reason that men like him should die, while the likes of Florrie's rotund, self-satisfied Eugene were left, to fatten and prosper on piety and platitudes.

Mother was bound to come looking for the letters – my attempts to divert Liam, Isabel's heart laid bare – and I wouldn't be strong enough to stop her a second time. The sooner I got them all out of the house, and told her so, the better. I sat at the desk to sort them.

‘Have you read them?' Matt was at the door.

‘I thought you were out.'

‘I'm back. Lockie told me where you went, and why.' He scuffed the rug with his foot. ‘So, have you? Read them?'

‘Of course not.'

His face relaxed. ‘Is there one from me?'

I found an envelope addressed in his backward-slanting hand and held it out to him. He stared at his own handwriting, as if it might tell him something other than what it plainly said: Liam's name, regiment, company. He took it from me slowly. ‘He never answered it.' He folded the envelope over, then over again.

I looked at my own hands. There was dirt under the nails, as though grease from the fire had lodged there.

‘Before he went, Liam asked me to promise that I'd go into the firm instead of him, if anything happened.'

‘And did you?'

‘At first. I felt I had to.' He stood free of the door and looked at me quickly. ‘He said it was my duty, as fighting was his.' He put the folded envelope into his pocket. ‘But then I wrote to tell him I wouldn't. He'd made his decision, I'd make mine.' He let his breath out in a low whistle. ‘Mother didn't see it, did she?'

‘No.'

‘I couldn't do it, Katie. I've no interest in the law, or contracts. It was one thing for Liam – he could keep clauses and sub-clauses and parties-of-the-first-part straight in his head – but I can't. I'd die of boredom.'

‘What will you do instead? You've only a year left in college.'

‘There's only one thing I'm good at.'

‘Ah, Matt. Acting? You can't be serious.'

‘Why not?' He glared at me. ‘It's all right for you. No one cares what you do in life, you only have to find someone to marry you.'

A great weariness came over me then. I could not have
cared less about what the future held, for any of us. ‘Was there something else you wanted?'

‘So long as you don't bring someone like Eugene into the family, that is.' He was trying to apologize. ‘I mean to say …' He hooked his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat and puffed himself up to twice his normal girth. His cheeks reddened and bulged, and he bounced on the balls of his feet. It was so exact a rendition of Florrie's pompous fiancé that I softened a little. I might even have smiled.

‘I mean to say,' he repeated in Eugene's nasal whine, ‘Con, now, would be all right.'

I leaned forward and swung the door shut between us. ‘Go away now, Matt. I'm busy.'

‘What's the matter?' His voice was muffled by the door.

‘Go away.'

I listened to his footsteps retreat across the landing and down the stairs.

Con Buckley was the last person I wanted to think about, ever again. I hadn't spoken to him properly since that horrendous night when we got the telegram about Liam. I'd barely even seen him, except for a visit of condolence he paid to the house, and one other time, after the memorial Mass I sat through in a daze. Con was one of the people who came back to the house afterwards, but I barely registered any of them. Their clacking, frightened words washed over me like sounds in the parrot house at the Zoo.

Once, I saw him walking towards me in town, but he turned down a side street before he reached me. I wasn't sure if he had seen me or not. I could hardly blame him if he was afraid I'd launch myself at him, given an opportunity, though the very idea made my toes curl. I never wanted to be alone with him again.

Mother was hurt by his continued absence. Dad said Con
was young, and didn't have the benefit of family to advise him that any awkwardness he felt would pass and that Mother would appreciate a visit. I heard him ask Eva later if Bartley might have a word with Con. She said it was to his credit if he was studying hard for his finals, on top of long, unpredictable working hours; he probably spent every free waking second asleep. But Bartley must have said something, because Con did eventually call on Mother. Whatever was said at that interview, he started to reappear at Sunday lunches.

I picked up the letters and fitted my hands around them, holding them as Liam would have done, cradling them, the fingers just so. The worn paper crinkled and whispered to my palms. I smoothed it with my thumbs. I'd never thought, before, about how a soldier has to carry everything, not just weapons and equipment, but anything he values. Even something as flimsy as a letter might tip the balance, drag him down. But they'd been precious to him. He wrote as much, in his own letters to me.
Keep writing to me, Katie. Letters are the lit windows between our two worlds. They remind me of all I used to be. Hold a place for me – the Liam you know, not the filthy, weary, war-stained wretch I've become – in your mind
.

I dealt the letters out across the desk, like playing-cards. They were easy enough to sort. Eva's curled handwriting flowed out to the borders of her blue envelopes. Mother's were addressed in careful capitals. Isabel used a distinctive, thick, ivory-vellum paper and a broad-nibbed pen. Her envelopes had been sliced open cleanly by a blade, as though to preserve as much of her as possible. All the others had been ripped, as with an impatient finger.

I scraped a brownish blot from an envelope with a fingernail. A shred of paper flaked off and fell to the desk, like a piece of dead skin. I picked it up with the tip of a finger, put it on my tongue, swallowed. It had no taste. When we prepared
for our first Holy Communion, Liam and I used tiny pieces of paper to practise receiving the Host, so that when the real moment came we wouldn't pollute it with our teeth, an offence that would banish us to hell, forever and ever, amen.

I looked at Isabel's letters. If I read them, I felt certain, I'd be able to tell Mother how wrong she was. I could set her mind at rest. I was curious about them on my own account too. They'd reveal a side of Liam I didn't know.

And had no business knowing.

A draught chilled my neck. Something stirred in the corner of the room. I looked around. ‘Matt? Is that you?'

Nothing. But when I turned back to the letters, I sensed it, not so much a shadow as a density. It came to me, as if I'd heard him say it, that Liam was waiting to see what I'd do with Isabel's letters.

The only actual sound in the room was my own breathing. I stood up, took my black mantilla off its hook, wrapped her letters in it and knotted the corners. There.

I risked another peep into the corner. My vision blurred, conjured a pair of big, callused soldier's feet crammed into my rabbit-fur slippers. They'd be ruined.

The feet withdrew. Several toes had poked holes through the ends of a nasty-looking sock, worse even than the ones I'd burned earlier. The lumpy kind I might have knitted, or inadequately darned, during one of Mother's sewing circles. The toenails could have done with attention.

I blinked and they were gone.

The house stirred. Our parents were moving about. A drawer in their room creaked open, then shut. I knew the one, it was where Mother kept her shawls. My heart beat hard, like someone knocking; someone in pursuit and me not wanting to be found. Get the letters out of here, be quick.

I left the letters from Florrie, Mother and Dad on the desk and put the rest in my satchel. Then I went to the wardrobe and took out my own precious hoard, his letters to me. I put them in my satchel with the others and buckled its worn leather straps. Then I bolted downstairs and out of the house, calling a message to Lockie I knew she wouldn't rightly hear.

It was good to be out in the air again and walking fast, shaking off that queer attack of nerves. But where to go – where would the letters be safe, who could I trust? Isabel was still in Cork with her aunt. I'd no intention of handing her letters over to anyone else at her house, where, for all I knew, they'd make as free with them as Mother would, given a chance. I was sure Eva wouldn't read them, if I asked her not to. But I didn't want to make trouble between her and Mother.

I needed a safe place to store Isabel's letters to Liam, and Liam's to me. I'd a vision of Mother on a rampage, in search of them – dragging the covers off the bed, tearing feathers from the pillows, hurling drawers to the ground. The look in her eyes, earlier, reminded me of how she went on when Eva married Bartley, filling the house with priests and sodality women and endless decades of the Rosary. We had to spend hours on our knees, praying for Eva to see sense and for Bartley's conversion. Then she sneaked Alanna off to be baptized, all of us sworn to such secrecy, you'd swear we were still in Penal times.

The best place for the letters was with Dote and May, in Percy Place. I wished Liam could have known them. They'd mind his letters, just as they'd minded me, coaxing me through the first dull weeks after he was killed, when I was no use to anyone.

A woman in bulky tweed loomed in front of me, jolted me out of my thoughts. She pressed a sheet of green paper into
my hands. Littered with emblems and exclamation marks, it urged me not to fraternize with my Nation's enemies.

Furious, I glared at her. She had big yellow horse-teeth on her, with a wide gap in the middle. I tore the handbill in two and gave it back to her. A tall girl with a haughty tilt to her dimpled chin came over. ‘Miss Crilly,' she said, in a pleasant enough voice. I knew her. Muriel Cox. She was a friend of Matt's.

‘Does my brother know what you get up to, Muriel?'

She flushed scarlet. ‘Matthew agrees with us.'

‘Does he, now? He doesn't say so at home. You should mind out who you foist your rubbish on!'

The tweedy woman's gappy teeth bit down hard on her lower lip. Muriel's heavy eyebrows made a single black line across her forehead. Her small blue eyes sparked. ‘Fay didn't know who you are. She didn't know –'

‘How d'you ever know?' If hatred alone could kill, the pair of them would've been flat out on a slab. ‘You couldn't throw a stone around here without hitting someone mourning a soldier. What gives you the right?' Self-conscious now, my words rang false in my ears, even as a couple of old ladies jeered their agreement. I pushed past Muriel and her ugly friend, sick to death of people telling other people what to think, what to believe, which side to take. How was a person supposed to make up her own mind with all that getting in the way? They were so convinced, that was it, as though they understood the world and their place in it. I didn't understand a thing. Maybe they were right, and the rest of us couldn't be trusted to make up our own minds about anything, not even what clothes to wear. If not for Lockie taking mine away and putting out fresh, I'd still be in the same things I'd worn when Liam was killed.

I'd reached the river. It flowed and eddied and reversed, drifted one way, then the other, rose and fell. I was bone-tired
of a sudden. The satchel grazed my hip, the strap burned my shoulder, the letters getting heavier with each step. Rest and peace were what I wanted. I'd go to Eva first.

Eva and Bartley lived at the blind end of Ely Place, around the corner from Stephen's Green.

Bartley opened the door. A face like thunder on him changed to surprise. ‘Katie!'

I was equally surprised. I'd been braced for Nan, their general servant, who could be spiky as a wire brush when she felt like it.

He stood back to let me in. ‘Eva's upstairs, at the front.' They had their house arranged with the bedrooms at street level, and the sitting rooms upstairs to give a better view. He took a closer look at me. ‘What's happened?'

I put my hands to my hot cheeks. ‘I walked fast.'

He closed the door and gestured for me to go up ahead of him, a doubtful expression on his face.

‘Are you expecting company?' I asked. ‘If it's not convenient, I'll come again.'

‘Not at all, come on up. You're really remarkably flushed, Katie.' He'd be reaching for my pulse next.

‘There was a row at home.' I patted my satchel. ‘Liam's things came. I'm returning Eva's letters.' I went ahead of him upstairs and into the parlour, with its view across the orchard to the leafy well of the Green, its colours deeper for all that recent rain. The window was open a crack at the top. Rich brassy notes flashed through the afternoon over the solid
parrump!
of a drum. In my mind's eye I saw the bandstand in the park, the women in their brightly coloured dresses sitting on deckchairs, men lounging beside them in dark overcoats, the mossy grass studded with daisies. As if no such thing as war existed.

‘What's wrong?' Eva moved to stand up when she saw me,
but I waved her back down and bent to kiss her cheek. She was pale as parchment, doing her sewing, her feet propped on a low stool. A basket of mending was on the floor beside her.

‘What's happened, is everyone well?'

How quickly we expect the worst, now. ‘Yes, everyone's fine.'

The alarm faded from her face. I dropped my satchel on the floor near the basket and sat into the chair beside hers. ‘Liam's things came today. I brought some for you. Letters you wrote him.'

Her eyes went watery. I took her hand and waited for her to get used to the idea. It was only a week or so since I'd seen her, but she looked thinner.

‘What else was there?'

‘His uniform. Photos. Some books. We saved a few odds and ends.'

Bartley went to the window and looked out. I wished he'd leave us alone so I could talk to Eva properly, tell her all that had happened. She might have been delicate, but she wasn't made of glass. ‘You should come round when you're better and see if there's anything else you want,' I said. ‘Ask Lockie, if I'm not there. We'd to hide everything, from Mother. She – well, she was upset.'

BOOK: Fallen
4.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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